Russian spy charges for U.S. reporter spark outrage

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Russian authorities on Thursday arrested a Wall Street Journal reporter on allegations of espionage, sparking a furious reaction in Washington, adding fresh tension to already icy U.S.-Russian relations and stoking fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin has fully embraced a new strategy as retaliation for Western opposition to his war in Ukraine.

The Wall Street Journal vehemently denied the charges against Evan Gershkovich, a veteran journalist who speaks fluent Russian. He was taken into custody by Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, in the city of Yekaterinburg. Mr. Gershkovich was filing stories from Russia as recently as this week, but Russian officials said he was using his credentials as a journalist for “activities that have nothing to do with journalism” and had acted on direct orders from the U.S. government.

It’s the first time Russia has arrested an American journalist on espionage charges since the end of the Cold War, signaling that Mr. Putin is willing to take more aggressive actions against perceived Western enemies as his troops struggle to gain ground in their war in Ukraine, now in its second year. 

Analysts also warned that the move suggests that Mr. Putin believes he can use Americans to secure the release of Russian prisoners — a strategy employed last year after U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner was detained on a trip to Russia until the Biden administration agreed to free notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange.

Moscow offered no public evidence to substantiate the allegations against Mr. Gershkovich, which Biden administration officials condemned.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre criticized the Kremlin’s crackdown on domestic and foreign media and said the detention Thursday was “unacceptable.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. consular officials in Russia are working to get access to the jailed reporter.

“In the strongest possible terms, we condemn the Kremlin’s continued attempts to intimidate, repress and punish journalists and civil society voices,” Mr. Blinken said. 

In its own statement, the Journal denied the allegations in a statement about Mr. Gershkovich, who works out of the newspaper’s Moscow bureau.

“The Wall Street Journal vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter, Evan Gershkovich,” The Journal said. “We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family.”

The arrest of Mr. Gershkovich will add more tension to a U.S.-Russia relationship that has reached a post-Cold War low. 

The detention comes just two weeks after an encounter between Russian fighter jets and a U.S. American MQ-9 Reaper unmanned drone over the Black Sea that resulted in the American craft crashing into the water, an incident that only fueled fears that direct conflict between the U.S. and Russia was drawing closer.

The Kremlin has expressed anger at U.S. and Western military assistance to Ukraine, most recently in the fierce battle to maintain control of the strategically vital city of Bakhmut in the eastern Ukrainian province of Donetsk. Russian troops, along with hired Wagner Group mercenaries, have been unable to capture the city despite a bloody, weeks-long offensive.

On the surface, the arrest of Mr. Gershkovich may appear to have little direct connection to the war in Ukraine. 

But the Journal reporter’s most recent piece highlighted the sweeping effects that Western sanctions have had on the Russian economy, raising the question of whether Mr. Putin ordered the detention to silence such critical coverage.

Jeanne Cavelier, of the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders, told the Associated Press that the arrest “looks like a retaliation measure of Russia against the United States.”

“We are very alarmed because it is probably a way to intimidate all Western journalists that are trying to investigate aspects of the war on the ground in Russia,” said Ms. Cavelier, head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk at the Paris-based group.

Other specialists said it’s likely the Kremlin will try to use the detained journalist as leverage in future prisoner swap negotiations with the U.S.

But Moscow denied that it is weighing any such swaps.

“I wouldn’t even consider this issue now because people who were previously swapped had already served their sentences,” said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, according to Russian state-run news agencies.

Russian detention of Americans is nothing new. Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive, has been held in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges. His family and the U.S. government say those charges are entirely baseless.

But American officials said that the imprisonment of an accredited journalist is a new low. 

Mr. Putin “plays all these little games of bluffing and brinkmanship,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Thursday.

“This is another one, but to have an innocent journalist be held hostage for that is really despicable and I’m urging the administration to do everything it can to get him free,” the New York Democrat said.

— Joseph Clark contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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