Russia has arrested a Wall Street Journal reporter for espionage. It’s an escalatory move that shows how much the US-Russia relationship has broken down, and the risks of publishing independent journalism in the country.
Evan Gershkovich is a 31-year-old American citizen who is accredited as a journalist with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was reporting in the industrial city of Yekaterinburg, about 900 miles east of Moscow, and arrested by the Federal Security Service (FSB), which said, without evidence, that he was “acting on the instructions of the American side,” and “collected information constituting a state secret about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex.”
The Journal “vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB,” it said in a statement, and stands “in solidarity with Evan and his family.”
The more that the US and Russia’s ongoing confrontation over the invasion of Ukraine mirrors a Cold War confrontation, the more likely that reporters who genuinely cover the security aspects are vulnerable to this type of hostage situation. Gershkovich is reportedly the first American journalist arrested in Russia on espionage charges in the post-Cold War era.
The timing is also notable given that last week the US had indicted suspected Russian spy Sergey Cherkasov, who the Justice Department says was operating as Victor Ferreira, for his activities in Washington. It “immediately makes me think the Russians detained him because they think they’re going to try to swap him for Cherkasov in some way, or that it’s retribution for that,” says Danielle Gilbert, a security scholar at Dartmouth College who researches hostage diplomacy.
For now, US diplomats in Russia are almost certainly working to meet with Gershkovich in person. The US has been working for years to secure the release of Paul Whelan, an American security consultant arrested in 2018 in Russia on espionage charges.
There are also likely backroom efforts underway to resolve this as quickly as possible. As Gilbert put it, “There is always kind of a quiet period of behind-the-scenes conversations and negotiations in hopes that it was a mistake, or that there can be a resolution that does not require a lot of attention or protracted negotiation, that maybe it’s something that can be resolved simply.”
Journalists under threat in Russia
The arrest of Gershkovich is not without precedent. Russia has only ever had a limited media ecosystem that has been increasingly constrained since the invasion of Ukraine. But what’s new in this century is that a foreign correspondent has been targeted.
It’s true that Russian authorities have often harassed and surveilled international journalists in the country. But they were generally a somewhat protected class, as compared to Russian journalists, who have faced deadly peril. The assumption was that having some foreign journalists in Russia was necessary should Russia want its correspondents credentialed in the US and Europe. Now, amid Russia’s onslaught on Ukraine, the rules are changing, and this appears to be a major departure for duly credentialed correspondents.
It’s not just journalists who are under threat. Last year, Russia arrested WNBA star Brittney Griner for a small drug charge, and then sentenced her to nine years in a penal colony.
In a December prisoner exchange in the United Arab Emirates, the US brought Griner home by swapping her for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who had been in US custody for over a decade.
Gilbert says the arrest of Gershkovich on charges of spying contains many of the hallmarks of wrongful detention, a designation emerging from a 2020 law to support hostages taken overseas. But for the State Department to designate the reporter as such may take time; Griner, who was arrested in February 2022, was only deemed wrongfully detained last May.
“Getting this designation indicates that the US government thinks that the arrest is unjust or arbitrary, or that the treatment of the American is unfair, or they have been arrested because they’re an American, or because the foreign government intends to use them for leverage,” Gilbert told me. “By giving that person that designation, it means that the United States government will get involved to try to bring them home.”
For Russian journalists, the environment has also been increasingly dangerous. Many independent outlets have been shut down or forced to operate outside of the country. Last spring, the Russian government enacted a law that allowed the imprisonment of anyone who published “false information” about the Ukraine war for up to 15 years. Indeed, Gershkovich wrote an in-depth feature for the Wall Street Journal on this troubling phenomenon last summer. He noted that many reporters have been labeled as “foreign agents,” about 200 websites have been blocked, and that prison sentences have become more likely.
Nineteen journalists are under arrest in Russia and 58 journalists were killed there last year alone, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. “By detaining the American journalist Evan Gershkovich, Russia has crossed the Rubicon and sent a clear message to foreign correspondents that they will not be spared from the ongoing purge of the independent media in the country,” says Gulnoza Said of the watchdog group.
When prominent Russian opposition politician Ilya Yashin was arrested in July 2022, Gershkovich provided crucial coverage in the Journal. At the time, he tweeted, “reporting on Russia is now also a regular practice of watching people you know get locked away for years.”