Ukraine live briefing: White House condemns Russia’s detention of U.S. journalist; Finland clears NATO hurdle

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visits a missile-damaged part of Zaporizhzhia on Monday. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)
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The State Department has been in “direct touch with the Russian government” and is “actively working to secure consular access” to Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who Russia has detained and accused of espionage, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday.

Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, said Thursday in a statement that it had detained Gershkovich, a U.S. citizen covering Russia and Ukraine, on charges of gathering confidential information about a Russian military enterprise. The newspaper vehemently denied the allegations demanded his immediate release.

Turkey’s parliament, meanwhile, has voted to approve Finland’s NATO membership bid, paving the way for the Nordic country to join the security alliance. The decision only applies to Finland, not Sweden, its neighbor and fellow membership hopeful. Both countries applied on the same day last year, having made the decision to join the alliance after Russia invaded Ukraine.

Here’s the latest on the war and its ripple effects across the globe.

Who is the Wall Street Journal reporter arrested in Russia?

Russia detains U.S. journalist

  • President Biden was briefed Thursday morning about Gershkovich’s detention and the State Department has been in touch with the Wall Street Journal and the journalist’s family, White House National Security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters. “The targeting of American citizens by the Russian government is absolutely completely unacceptable,” Kirby said.
  • Kirby urged U.S. citizens to heed previous warnings and avoid travel to Russia. Any Americans there should leave immediately out of concern for their safety, he added. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that Washington condemned the “Kremlin’s continued attempts to intimidate, repress, and punish journalists and civil society voices.”
  • Russian security agents detained Gershkovich in the city of Yekaterinburg, in the central Ural Mountains, the FSB said. Without citing any evidence, the agency accused him of “acting on instructions from United States” and “collecting information constituting a state secret about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex.” The Wall Street Journal said it was “deeply concerned” for Gershkovich’s safety.

Other key updates

  • President Biden was briefed Thursday morning about Gershkovich’s detention and the State Department has been in touch with the Wall Street Journal and the journalist’s family, White House National Security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters. “The targeting of American citizens by the Russian government is absolutely completely unacceptable,” Kirby said.
  • Thursday’s vote in Turkey was the last hurdle in Finland’s quest to join the military organization. Its eventual accession would remake European security, doubling NATO’s land border with Russia and bringing the full force of the alliance to Europe’s far north.
  • The Russian Foreign Ministry clarified Thursday that Moscow will continue to notify Washington of any ballistic missile launches, despite a statement Wednesday that “all forms of notifications” were terminated as a result of President Vladimir Putin suspending the New START nuclear nonproliferation agreement.
  • A Russian court on Tuesday ordered a two-year jail sentence for Alexei Moskalyov, 54, the father of a 13-year-old girl who drew an antiwar picture in art class, in a case that led to the daughter being seized by authorities and placed in an orphanage. He escaped from house arrest on Monday night, opting not to wait for the almost-certain guilty verdict — but was arrested again in Minsk, Belarus, Russia’s RBC newspaper reported on Thursday, citing the Belarusian Interior Ministry.
  • There has been a “significant increase in the number of troops” in Zaporizhzhia and “open talk about offensives and counteroffensives” involving Ukrainian and Russian forces, IAEA chief Rafael Mariano Grossi said during a visit Wednesday to the nuclear plant. “Every measure and precaution should be taken so that the plant is not attacked and can be protected,” Grossi said. He added that efforts are underway to get Kyiv and Moscow to agree to principles such as not attacking the plant or using it as a base to launch attacks.

Battleground updates

  • Britain’s Defense Ministry said reports that Russia intends to recruit an additional 400,000 troops for its war in Ukraine could mean more mandatory mobilization. While Russian authorities have presented this effort “as a drive for volunteer, professional personnel, rather than a new, mandatory mobilisation,” in practice, this distinction could become “blurred,” the ministry said, with regional authorities meeting “their allocated recruitment targets by coercing men to join up.”
  • Zelensky said that if Russian forces capture the eastern city of Bakhmut, Vladimir Putin will sell the victory “to the West, to his society, to China, to Iran.” A defeat there would also greatly add to pressure on Ukraine to compromise with Russia, he told the AP. Ukraine’s armed forces said that Russia is partially succeeding but that Ukrainian troops continue to hold on.
  • The fierce battle for Bakhmut has caused extensive damage to the Ukrainian army and to the Wagner Group, the Russian mercenary outfit’s head, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, said in an audio message posted to social media this week. He said Wagner would keep fighting for the city, which has assumed a symbolic significance for both sides, analysts say.

Global impact

  • White House spokesman John Kirby told journalists Thursday that Slovakian national Ashot Mkrtychev had attempted to broker a weapons deal between North Korea and Russia. He said the planned agreement would involve Pyongyang supplying more than two dozen types of weaponry and munitions to Russia in exchange for food for North Korea.
  • “Any arms deal between North Korea and Russia would directly violate a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions,” Kirby said. The U.S. Treasury announced sanctions on Mkrtychev.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in his nightly address Thursday, marked 400 days at war. He pledged to win the fight with Russia, rebuild and seek justice.
  • Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met in New Delhi with Nikolai Patrushev, a close ally of Putin and Russia’s security chief. The meeting involved discussions of “bilateral cooperation” and “international issues,” the Indian government said. New Delhi has refused to join Kyiv’s Western allies in condemning Moscow for the invasion of Ukraine, instead shoring up its oil and other trade with Russia while calling for peace.

Analysis from our correspondents

Russia’s covert operations have a major weakness: Hubris. The tale of Brazilian student Victor Muller Ferreira — or alleged Russian agent Sergey Cherkasov — is a remarkable modern story of spycraft, which also exposes the weaknesses of covert Russian operations, Adam Taylor writes.

Cherkasov allegedly spent a decade building a fictitious persona as Ferreira, but the ambitious, high-risk operation included a side of self-defeating hubris. Parts of the information he was reportedly sending back to Moscow on the U.S. reaction ahead of the invasion of Ukraine, the FBI later concluded, came from an online group discussion led by a former professor.

He appears to have been a small part of a far broader intelligence failure by Russia that greatly overestimated how easily the invasion of Ukraine would play out, setting itself up for even more serious failures on the battlefield.