Ukraine live briefing: ‘Let him go,’ Biden says of U.S. reporter detained in Russia

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich has been detained in Russia. (Wall Street Journal/Reuters)
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The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board called on the Biden administration to expel Russia’s ambassador in Washington and Russian journalists in the United States after Moscow detained Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich. The board accused Russia of taking the U.S. citizen hostage on bogus espionage charges.

The White House has said the State Department has been in “direct touch with the Russian government” and is “actively working to secure consular access” to the 31-year-old journalist. “Let him go,” Biden told reporters outside the White House on Friday, directing the remark at Russia. In response to a question about the call to expel Russian diplomats, he said, “That’s not the plan right now.” Leading media and human rights organizations have said Gershkovich’s detention is unwarranted and unjust and called for his release.

In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky marked the anniversary of the recapture of Bucha, the town in the Kyiv suburbs where Russian forces are alleged to have committed atrocities against civilians before retreating. Ukrainian authorities exhumed a communal grave near Bucha this month as investigators work to collect evidence of alleged war crimes. “The United States supports Ukrainian and international efforts to document and investigate these atrocities,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in remarks on Bucha, delivered virtually.

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

Moscow hadn’t accused a U.S. reporter of spying since the Cold War — until this week

U.S. journalist detained

  • The Wall Street Journal said “expelling Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., as well as all Russian journalists working here,” is the “minimum” it expects from the Biden administration. The newspaper said that this was the first arrest of a U.S. journalist on espionage allegations in Russia since the Cold War and that neither it nor U.S. officials had been allowed to contact Gershkovich as of late Thursday.
  • Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there was “no reason” to expel Russia’s ambassador and Russian journalists from the United States. “There should be no such thing,” he said Friday. Media groups have condemned Gershkovich’s detention. Reporters Without Borders called for his release and said there was no indication he was “doing anything other than legitimate investigative reporting.”
  • The United States called the charges against Gershkovich “ridiculous,” and the European Union’s top diplomat said his detention showed the Kremlin’s “systematic disregard for media freedom.” Gershkovich recently wrote about Russia’s economy and attitudes toward the war in Ukraine. He has denied the charges.
  • In the years since the Soviet Union’s dissolution more than three decades ago, Moscow had not arrested a U.S. journalist on espionage charges. The most recent instance was in 1986, when Nicholas Daniloff, the Moscow bureau chief for U.S. News and World Report, was arrested just three days after the arrest of an employee of the Soviet Union’s Mission to the United Nations in New York. After less than two weeks of diplomatic negotiations, Zakharov was released into the care of the Russian Embassy in Washington, and a similar deal was made for Daniloff.

Key developments

  • NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said Finland would formally join the alliance “in the coming days,” describing the Nordic nation’s accession as a “historic occasion.” He said that it has been “the fastest ratification process in NATO’s modern history” and that he hoped Sweden also could join “as soon as possible.” The two countries applied for membership last year, prompted by Russia’s attack on Ukraine, but alliance members Turkey and Hungary are still holding out on Sweden’s potential accession.
  • Russia on Saturday is to assume the U.N. Security Council presidency, a role that rotates among member states monthly. The White House urged Russia to “conduct itself professionally,” and a spokesperson for Ukraine’s foreign minister called Moscow’s assumption of the presidency an “April Fools’ Day joke.”
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a new “foreign policy concept” for Russia that signals a confrontational approach to the West. According to the new 42-page document, Moscow will work to “counter Russophobia” and eliminate “rudiments of domination” by the U.S. and other “unfriendly countries in world affairs,” while also increasing the militarization of its own society and strengthening ties with India and China. The document, which outlines the theory behind Russian foreign policy, was last drafted in 2o16.
  • The International Monetary Fund on Friday approved a $15.6 billion economic program for Ukraine, aimed at economic growth, anti-corruption measures and eventual reconstruction. U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen welcomed the move. “I call on all other official and private creditors to join this initiative to assist Ukraine as it defends itself from Russia’s unprovoked war,” she said in a statement.

Global impact

  • Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said infrastructure is ready for Russian nuclear weapons to be stationed in his country. A staunch ally of Putin, Lukashenko said Friday that he has intensified talks with Moscow about returning nuclear weapons to Belarus and that “if necessary, we will decide with Putin and bring strategic nuclear weapons to Belarus.”
  • Wimbledon is set to allow Russian and Belarusian players to compete at this year’s tournament, organizers announced Friday, after they were banned from the 2022 tennis tournament because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
  • Russian intelligence agencies worked with a Moscow-based defense contractor to strengthen their ability to launch cyberattacks and surveil sections of the internet, according to thousands of pages of leaked confidential corporate documents called the Vulkan Files, The Washington Post reports.

From our correspondents

Arresting U.S. journalist, Kremlin ruthlessly pursues wartime aims: Russia’s arrest of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich and its prosecution of a Russian dad spotlight Vladimir Putin’s willingness to disregard global norms and squash dissent at all costs, Robyn Dixon and Natalia Abbakumova report.

“Each case appeared to be the first of its kind since 1986, in the dying years of the Soviet Union,” Dixon and Abbakumova report. “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.”

Natalia Abbakumova, Matt Bonesteel and Robyn Dixon contributed to this report.