RIGA, Latvia — Russia’s arrest of Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich on charges of spying for the United States, while providing no evidence, marked a threshold moment, sending a chilling signal about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s willingness to lead an isolationist state dismissive of global norms.
Each case appeared to be the first of its kind since 1986, in the dying years of the Soviet Union. Together, they conveyed a portrait of a ruthless wartime Russian government, desperate for leverage on the geopolitical stage and willing to stop at nothing to crush even trivial dissent at home.
“We can see it as a new level of escalation,” said Tatiana Stanovaya of analytical consultancy R.Politik. “What is most striking for me is that before, even last year in the first months of the war, we could talk about some shadow red lines — about the Kremlin’s attempts to respect some unspoken rules. Now there are no rules.”
The arrest of Gershkovich, a respected journalist from a major Western publication holding a visa and accreditation from Russia’s Foreign Ministry, seemed calculated to shock and to send a clear message that the Kremlin was burning all bridges with what it calls “the collective West.”
A closed court hearing in Moscow on Thursday, where even Gershkovich’s lawyer was reportedly denied entry, contrasted sharply with a detailed 46-page indictment released by the Justice Department last week against Sergey Cherkasov, an alleged Russian spy, who is now jailed in Brazil after using a false Brazilian identity to attend graduate school in the United States.
The single father, Alexei Moskalyov, 54, sentenced to a two-year jail term for antiwar posts on social media, was arrested at Russia’s request on Thursday in Minsk, Belarus, after he fled house arrest. Authorities seized his daughter, Maria, about a month ago, and placed her in an orphanage, in a case that has stunned even Russian hard-liners.
The prosecution of Moskalyov and the persecution of his daughter, Maria, over a drawing in sixth-grade art class is all the more striking given the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court accusing Putin of war crimes over the forced relocation of Ukrainian children to Russia.
After a string of military failures in Ukraine that have left him with unclear goals and no realistic end game, Putin continues to double down, escalating threats and ramping up international tensions. Last weekend, he again brandished his nuclear arsenal saying he would soon position tactical nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus.
As Russia’s military position has deteriorated, Putin has deflected blame by accusing the West of striving to inflict “a strategic defeat on Russia,” calling it an existential threat.
“For him there are no rules anymore,” Stanovaya, the R.Politik analyst said, “and Russia will undertake all measures to secure its interests.”
Putin’s trademark has always been the use of threats and aggression to sow not only fear, but uncertainty and doubt, keeping his citizens and global enemies off balance. Lately, he has fostered an atmosphere of permanent crisis in multiple arenas, to keep the world watching nervously as he tries to rattle Western support for Ukraine.
His aggressive rhetoric and calls for tougher action to root out internal “enemies,” “scum” and “traitors” have created an incentive for brutality that regional leaders and law enforcement officials have dashed to fulfill, jostling for Kremlin attention and approbation.
The arrest of Gershkovich, which the Wall Street Journal described as a “calculated provocation,” has sent relations between Washington and Moscow to yet another new low, and put Russia a step closer to pariah status. In an editorial, the Journal called for the expulsion of Russia’s ambassador to the United States as well as all Russian journalists working in the country.
The editorial on Friday said Gershkovich’s arrest was “more evidence that Russia is divorcing itself from the community of civilized nations.” And it said: “Thuggish leaders keep doing thuggish things if they think they will pay no price.”
President Biden, asked about the case on Friday, had a message for the Kremlin: “Let him go.”
Gershkovich’s arrest was the first case of Russia arresting and accusing an American journalist of spying since 1986. Many foreign journalists had left Russia following the invasion of Ukraine and after the adoption of tough, new laws barring criticism of the military. The Russian government officially refers to its attack on Ukraine as a “special military operation” instead of a war, and demands that news organizations in Russia do the same.
Gershkovich has worked in Russia since 2017, first at the Moscow Times and with Agence France-Presse before joining the Journal early last year. His arrest multiplies the risks for Western journalists in Russia, making it difficult for international correspondents to report on the war, by raising questions about who may be arrested next.
On Thursday, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed, without providing evidence, that Gershkovich was “caught red-handed,” comments that analysts said indicated that the arrest was ordered or approved by the Kremlin.
While foreign journalists have not been arrested in recent decades, Russia has repeatedly abused its legal system to oppress its own citizens, including activists, journalists and, most recently, ordinary citizens like Moskalyov who speak out in favor of peace. Moskalyov and his daughter lived in Yefremov, a small town in the Tula region about 150 miles south of Moscow.
His jail term is one of many severe punishments levied against Russian citizens trying to exercise free speech. One of the last times a Russian parent’s child was taken away for political reasons was when Alexander and Larisa Chukayev’s 3-year-old son was taken from them in 1986 after Alexander was convicted of a political offense, and his wife was arrested on trumped-up charges.
Moskalyov’s case even drew censure from Yevgeniy Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner mercenary group, who called the verdict “unfair, especially given the fact that his daughter Masha will be forced to grow up in an orphanage.”
Dmitry Zakhvatov, part of the team of lawyers and rights activists who tried to help Moskalyov escape, said there was widespread shock about the case in Russia.
“Our people are used to believing that we stand for strong family ties, for full families, for orthodox families, and that is what propaganda tells people,” Zakhvatov said. “And now they see that something went wrong: A child is taken away from her parent and the reason is not serious at all. The child is being separated from her dad because of a drawing.”
Irina Borogan, deputy editor of Agentura.ru, a watchdog group, said Moskalyov’s case highlighted the increasing power and impunity of Russia’s security services. “It is very intimidating for average people in Russia,” Borogan said. “Every family has children and they can be punished for such a small thing as a picture. It puts many families in a vulnerable position.”
In an effort at damage control, officials have sought to smear Moskalyov. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, accused him of a “deplorable” performance of parental duties.
Putin’s commissioner for children’s rights Maria Lvova-Belova, who is also facing a war crimes warrant by the International Criminal Court, admitted on Thursday that Maria yearned for her father but she blamed Moskalyov, stating that he “exacerbates the already difficult situation of the child.”
Authorities have isolated Maria. Family supporters cannot reach her by phone. Her father’s lawyer was not allowed to see her this week. But a letter she managed to write to her father, and given by the orphanage to his lawyer, destroyed the official disinformation. “I love you so much and I know that you’re not guilty of anything. I am always on your side, and everything you are doing is right,” she wrote. “You are my dad, the smartest, most handsome, best dad in the world. Know that there is no one better than you.”
“Please, just don’t give up. Believe, hope and love,” she wrote, and signed off with, “I love you,” in English, and a heart containing the words “My hero.”
Francesca Ebel in London contributed to this report.
One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine
Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.
Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.
A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.
Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.