RIGA, Latvia — Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, arrested a Wall Street Journal reporter, Evan Gershkovich, a U.S. citizen assigned to the newspaper’s Moscow bureau, and accused him on Thursday of being a spy for the United States.
“The Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation stopped the illegal activities of the correspondent of the Moscow bureau of the American newspaper The Wall Street Journal, Evan Gershkovich, born in 1991, who is suspected of spying for the American government,” the FSB said in its statement. “It was established that Gershkovich, acting at the request of the American side, collected information constituting a state secret about the activities of an enterprise of the Russian military-industrial complex. The foreign national was detained in Yekaterinburg while attempting to obtain classified information.”
Gershkovich was arrested Wednesday in Yekaterinburg in the Urals and was transferred to a Moscow court, where he denied the charges on Thursday and was ordered to be held in the Lefortovo pretrial detention center until May 29, the Tass state-controlled news agency reported.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the Biden administration had contacted the Russian government and was “deeply concerned.” Jean-Pierre said the targeting of American citizens by Russian authorities was “unacceptable.”
“We condemn the detention of Mr. Gershkovich in the strongest terms,” she said. “We also condemn the Russian government’s continued targeting and repression of journalists and freedom of the press.” She warned Americans not to travel to Russia and called on those in Russia to leave immediately.
Tass reported that Gershkovich’s lawyer, Daniil Berman, was barred from the hearing on Thursday. The agency quoted law enforcement officials as stating the case was marked “top secret.” The Tass report could not be independently verified.
Gershkovich, 31, has worked in Russia as a journalist since 2017. He joined the Journal a little more than a year ago, after working for Agence France-Presse and the Moscow Times. Before that, he was a news assistant for the New York Times in New York.
In addition to strongly denying the accusations, the Journal expressed deep concern for Gershkovich’s safety.
“The Wall Street Journal vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter, Evan Gershkovich,” the newspaper said in a statement Thursday. “We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family.”
Gershkovich faces up to 20 years in prison if he is convicted. Russia’s justice system is highly politicized, and acquittals are rare. Espionage trials are typically held in secret.
Gershkovich was detained Wednesday, according to local media. He was taken to Moscow for a court hearing, and the case was being handled by the FSB’s central office, the Kommersant newspaper reported.
A Yekaterinburg news outlet, Vecherniye Vedomosti, reported that an eyewitness saw plainclothes security agents remove a person from a Yekaterinburg restaurant on Wednesday and place him in a minivan, which drove away. A sweater had been pulled over the man’s face as he was led to the van, according to the report.
Senior Russian government officials swiftly endorsed the allegations against Gershkovich, preempting judicial proceedings and suggesting without evidence that they had no doubts about the case, which appeared to be the first arrest of a foreign journalist for spying in Russia since the Cold War.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “As far as we know, he was caught red-handed. I don’t know the details.”
Pressed by reporters about whether the arrest could have negative consequences for Russian journalists working abroad, Peskov replied: “We hope that this will not happen, and it should not happen. Let me repeat, it’s not a question of suspicion. It’s that he was caught red-handed.”
He declined to be more specific, adding: “No, I can’t. That’s the prerogative of the secret service. They are the ones who deal with spies.”
Asked whether the Kremlin was aware of Gershkovich’s work, he responded: “Of course, we monitor the foreign media every day. We read his publications.” He offered no details about the Kremlin’s attitude toward the journalist. “Well, what kind of attitude could there be? We take into account what is published. I cannot say anything more.”
The spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, alleged without providing evidence that Gershkovich’s activities in Yekaterinburg had “nothing to do with journalism.”
“Unfortunately, this is not the first time that the status of a ‘foreign correspondent,’ a journalist’s visa and accreditation are used by foreigners in our country to cover up activities that are not journalism,” Zakharova wrote on her Telegram channel.
Relations between Washington and Moscow have grown increasingly toxic over Russia’s war against Ukraine. Last week, the Justice Department unveiled an indictment against Sergey Cherkasov, an alleged Russian spy who attended graduate school in the United States under a false Brazilian identity. Cherkasov was arrested in Brazil and is jailed there.
Russia has detained several U.S. citizens in cases that appeared to be trumped up for political leverage. Among them was WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was exchanged in December for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
As that exchange was being negotiated, the United States unsuccessfully sought to include Paul Whelan, a U.S. citizen and Marine Corps veteran, who was arrested in Russia, convicted of spying and sentenced to a 16-year prison term in 2020. He remains incarcerated there.
Lefortovo pretrial detention center is one of Russia’s most secure prisons, where those accused of serious crimes such as treason, terrorism and espionage are confined. Whelan spent months there with no phone calls and was denied permission to write to his family, Tass reported.
Vedant Patel, a State Department spokesman, told reporters in Washington that the administration had tried to contact Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the incident but had not yet heard back. He said the immediate priority was to secure an opportunity for embassy officials to visit Gershkovich in line with their consular duties.
Patel, citing emerging information about the incident and privacy concerns, declined to say whether the U.S. government thought Gershkovich had been detained in retaliation for the indictment against Cherkasov or anything else.
He said that since its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 alone, Russia had labeled more than 100 media workers and dozens of media outlets as “undesirable organizations” or foreign agents “for simply just doing their job.”
President Biden was briefed Thursday morning about Gershkovich’s detention, the White House said earlier in the day.
Yaroslav Shirshkov, a local advocate and critic of the war in Ukraine, who met Gershkovich in Yekaterinburg, said in a phone interview that the American journalist asked him questions about local people’s opinions on current events.
“He behaved as a professional journalist, a very highly professional journalist, and he observed all the rules, and he acted exclusively as a journalist,” Shirshkov said. He was alerted to Gershkovich’s disappearance when someone from the newspaper’s London office called him at 1 a.m. Thursday to say the office had not been able to contact Gershkovich by phone for nine hours.
Shirshkov said the arrest seemed to signal that Russian authorities were looking for someone to use in an exchange. “I think that they just needed to kind of replenish their so-called exchange fund,” he said.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Thursday that it was premature to raise the question of an exchange involving Gershkovich. He said previous exchanges involved prisoners who had been convicted.
There is a precedent for the exchange of a journalist accused of espionage.
In 1986, Soviet authorities arrested U.S. News & World Report correspondent Nicholas Daniloff and accused him of spying. He was allowed to leave the country, without standing trial, after the United States agreed to allow Gennady Zakharov, a Soviet citizen accused of espionage in the United States, to leave the country without a trial. Zakharov was sent back to Moscow in exchange for a group of Soviet dissidents.
Since the start of the invasion of Ukraine last year, the Russian government has moved to suppress all dissent and has adopted strict laws prohibiting criticism of the Russian military.
Mark Galeotti, a Russian analyst at University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, called Gershkovich’s arrest “shocking.” Posting on Twitter, Galeotti wrote: “These days the Kremlin doesn’t even feel the need to have the most basic pretext to use hostage-taking as a tool of statecraft. Although on reflection, it’s not so much the act of a state as a bandit gang.”
Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based advocacy group, tweeted: “Journalists must not be targeted.”
In recent months, Gershkovich has written about Russia’s economy as well as attitudes toward the war in Pskov, a city in western Russia, which is the base of a paratrooper unit that occupied Bucha, a Kyiv suburb, and was accused of atrocities.
The ChTD channel on Telegram, which is associated with the exiled Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, described Gershkovich as a “hostage.”
Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.
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