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'Sending A Signal': Russian Spy Accusation Against U.S. Journalist Further Escalates Soaring Tensions

The Wall Street Journal's Evan Gershkovich leaves a court building in Moscow on March 30.

A Moscow court on March 30 authorized the detention of U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich of The Wall Street Journal for two months on suspicion of espionage. The Federal Security Service (FSB) claimed he had been seeking information about Russia’s military-industrial complex at the behest of the U.S. government -- accusations The Wall Street Journal and the United States firmly rejected.

Under President Vladimir Putin, a few Western journalists have been expelled or denied renewal of their credentials, but none has faced criminal prosecution. Gershkovich has not been formally charged, but his arrest is unprecedented for a foreign journalist in post-Soviet Russia and a highly provocative move that harkens back to the Cold War period.

No Apologies

Relations between Russia and the West have been on a downward trajectory for years and have been particularly strained since Moscow’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, but the detention of a U.S. journalist on accusations of spying broke new ground. It was the first such case in Russia’s post-Soviet history, prompting comparisons with the 1986 arrest of journalist Nicholas Daniloff of U.S. News & World Report.

Daniloff was released after 15 days of intense negotiations and exchanged for a Russian arrested in the United States on espionage charges.

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich
Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich

“Of course, all this was made up by the KGB, and I knew from the first interrogation that it was a retaliatory measure following the arrest of a Soviet spy in New York, [Gennady] Zakharov,” Daniloff told RFE/RL’s Russian Service in 2008.

In 1992, Daniloff had a chance to ask former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev about his arrest.

“Gorbachev answered that it was in accordance with the rules of the Cold War, a retaliatory measure in reaction to the arrest of Zakharov in New York,” Daniloff said. “He just said it was a normal Cold War matter. He didn’t apologize.”

In August 2021, BBC Moscow correspondent Sarah Rainsford was expelled from Russia as Moscow’s response to British restrictions on Russian state media outlets RT and Sputnik.

“The expulsion of Sarah Rainsford is our symmetrical response,” state-run TV channel Rossia-24 commented, calling it a “landmark deportation.”

'Continuing This Work'?

Although American journalists have not been targeted with criminal charges under Putin, other Americans have been prosecuted and imprisoned. Western governments and others have accused Putin’s government of taking “hostages” to secure the release of Russians held abroad.

British Russia analyst Mark Galeotti wrote on Twitter that the Gershkovich arrest “is a shocking example of the way that these days the Kremlin doesn’t even feel the need to have the most basic pretext to use hostage-taking as a tool of statecraft.”

“It is entirely possible he was detained for an exchange,” said Russian human rights lawyer Yevgeny Smirnov, noting that such exchanges usually only take place after a trial and conviction in Russia and on the basis of a presidential pardon.

“They make a political decision and then the legal procedures are arranged around it,” he said.

Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, stands in a cage while waiting for a hearing in a courtroom in Moscow in August 2019.
Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, stands in a cage while waiting for a hearing in a courtroom in Moscow in August 2019.

Most recently, U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner was exchanged in December for convicted Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout.

Shortly after that exchange, Putin said additional swaps were “possible.”

“We do not reject continuing this work in the future,” he said.

Other Americans currently being held in Russian prisons include Paul Whelan, who was arrested on espionage charges in 2018 and sentenced in June 2020 to 16 years in prison. The U.S. government has rejected the allegations and called Whelan’s trial a mockery of justice. U.S. citizen Marc Fogel, a schoolteacher, is serving a 14-year sentence on drug charges after trying to enter Russia with 17 grams of marijuana he says was prescribed to manage chronic pain from a back injury.

'You Might Be Next'

At the same time, Gershkovich’s detention sends a signal to Western journalists covering Russia and Moscow’s war against Ukraine.

“Russian journalists got the message that they were not safe as early as 2021,” Russian lawyer Ivan Pavlov, a specialist in state-secrets cases who now lives in Prague, told RFE/RL’s Russian Service. “Some foreign journalists continued working in Russia, and now this signal has been directed to them. The unspoken rule that you don’t touch accredited foreign journalists no longer applies.”

Putin’s government “usually speaks to society in the form of criminal cases,” using them to “say what you can do and what you can’t,” lawyer Smirnov said. “And it is entirely possible that this criminal case is sending a signal to foreign journalists: You might be next -- don’t write about the war if you are in Russia.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if [Gershkovich’s arrest] was a planned campaign that has nothing behind it,” he concluded.

'Veil Of Secrecy'

Gershkovich’s defense attorney, Daniil Berman, was not admitted to the brief Moscow hearing at which the court confirmed his detention.

“The hearing was conducted very quickly,” Berman told RFE/RL. “I don’t know if it was three minutes or 15. But afterwards, as far as I know, Evan was taken away.”

Daniil Berman, Gershkovich's lawyer, speaks to journalists near the court in Moscow on March 30.
Daniil Berman, Gershkovich's lawyer, speaks to journalists near the court in Moscow on March 30.

Smirnov said the hasty, closed hearing was a sign the government intends to maintain strict control over the narrative of the case.

“They will do everything possible to keep independent lawyers, who might lift the veil of secrecy and at least tell us what he is accused of, from speaking with him,” Smirnov said. “They won’t allow journalists into the courtroom so that they won’t be able to hear anything.”

He also said that if Gershkovich is charged and tried, it could be up to two years before a verdict is issued.

“All that time, the journalist will be held in total isolation, without phone calls or visits,” Smirnov said. “Lawyers will have to spend several months trying to get access to him. Even his contact with investigators will be strictly limited.

“All the most active events [in this case] have either already happened or will be wound up in the next two or three days,” he concluded.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Russian Service and Current Time