Russia arrests Wall Street Journal reporter on espionage charges
Russia’s top security agency says it has arrested a reporter for The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) over alleged espionage.
Journalist Evan Gershkovich was arrested in Yekaterinburg on spying charges, according to Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) – the successor to the KGB.
The arrest is the most serious public move against an international journalist since Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year. Espionage charges against someone from an American news outlet have not been seen since the end of the Cold War – with the detention coming amid a bitter war of words between Moscow and Washington over the Ukraine war.
If convicted, Mr Gershkovich could face up to 20 years in prison.
The WSJ said in a statement it was "deeply concerned" for Mr Gershkovich's safety and that it "vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter".
The US has been full-throated in its support of Kyiv, with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin having repeatedly hit out at Washington – and the wider West – for the weapons it is providing Kyiv. Mr Putin’s rhetoric has only grown more inflammatory as his invasion has faltered amid months of intense fighting in Ukraine’s eastern regions.
Moscow has a habit of using detainees for political leverage. Basketball star Brittney Griner, who was caught arriving in Moscow with cannabis oil a week before the invasion of Ukraine began and was freed in a prisoner swap in December. Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, told the the state RIA news agency that it was too early to talk of a possible prisoner swap for Mr Gershkovich.
Another American, Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive, has been imprisoned in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the US government have said are baseless.
As for US correspondents being detained by Russia, Nicholas Daniloff, based in Moscow for US News and World Report, was arrested by the KGB in September 1986. The US believed he had been detained in retaliation for the arrest by the FBI of an employee of the Soviet Union’s United Nations mission. Mr Daniloff was released without charges 20 days later, with the UN worker also allowed to leave the US.
The FSB said it had “stopped the illegal activities of US citizen Gershkovich Evan, born in 1991, a correspondent of the Moscow bureau of the American newspaper The Wall Street Journal, accredited at the Russian foreign ministry, who is suspected of spying in the interests of the American government”.
The Kremlin has claimed the reporter had been "caught red-handed". It was not immediately clear when the journalist was arrested.
The FSB claims Mr Gershkovich had been tasked “by the American side” with gathering information on “the activities of one of the enterprises of the military-defence complex” – believed to be a factory.
It did not name the factory or say where it was, but said it had detained the 31-year-old journalist in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg as he was trying to procure secret information. It did not provide documentary or video evidence of his guilt. Mr Gershkovich was reportedly visting Nizhny Tagil, the site of the Russian battle tank producer Uralvagonzavod, according to Russian news website Meduza, which is based in Latvia. Dozens of companies producing weapons are based in the city.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova claimed Mr Gershkovich's activities in Yekaterinburg were "not related to journalism". The Kremlin said other journalists working for the U.S. publication in Russia could remain in post provided they had the right credentials and were carrying out what it called "normal journalistic activity".
A diplomatic source told Reuters that the US embassy in Moscow had not been informed about the incident and was seeking information from the Russian authorities about the case.
The Reporters Without Borders group said it was “alarmed” by the arrest of Mr Gershkovich and that it "looks like a retaliation measure of Russia against the United States.”
Andrei Soldatov, an author and expert in Russia's security agencies who is outside the country, said on social media: "Evan Gershkovich is a very good and brave journalist, not a spy, for Christ's sake. It [his detention] is a frontal attack on all foreign correspondents who still work in Russia. And it means that the FSB is off the leash."
Russia’s Kommersant newspaper reported that the journalist would be transported to Moscow and held in the capital’s Lefortovo prison, an FSB pre-trial detention facility.
Mr Gershkovich covers Russia, Ukraine and the former Soviet Union for the WSJ. He has previously worked with news agency Agence France-Presse, The Moscow Times and The New York Times.
Russia has tightened censorship laws since the start of the Ukraine invasion, bringing in jail terms for people deemed to have "discredited" the military. This has curtailed all independent Russian news outlets but authorities have continued to accredit some foreign reporters.
The definition of what constitutes a state secret, particularly in the military sphere, has been broadened too.
In Mr Gershkovich’s last report, “Russia’s economy is starting to come undone”, Gershkovich reported that the country’s economy felt the heat of Western sanctions and faced a slowdown, adding that the Russian government’s revenue is “being squeezed”.
The news report said the Russian economy was entering a long-term regression.
Public relations expert Yaroslav Shirshikov told The Moscow Times that he received a phone call overnight from a WSJ employee, saying they were unable to contact the reporter.
“[Gershkovich] was online yesterday at about 15.00 for the last time. He arranged to do an interview with me,” Mr Shirshikov told 66.ru.
Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report