Experts say it’ll be ‘very difficult’ to get US reporter out of Russia
Evan Gershkovich, a 31-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter, was arrested for espionage in Russia, which carries up to 20 years in prison in Russia.
Calls for the release of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich from Russian detention continue to grow as U.S. officials seek his immediate release and consular access.
The 31 year old was accused of espionage and arrested by the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, or FSB, last week. The paper has strongly denied the charges, and White House officials have called them ridiculous.
“We will do everything we can to get Evan home — and Paul Whelan, by the way. That hasn’t stopped either,” said John Kirby, National Security Council spokesperson. “But we had no illusions that it’s going to take a lot of hard work. That doesn’t mean we’re going to shy away from it. We’ll do that work. And so it’s got attention all the way up to the Oval Office in terms of how we can get him home.”
President Joe Biden has called on Russia to “let him go,” while U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had a rare conversation with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, on Sunday. A department spokesperson said Blinken expressed the United States’ grave concerns and called for Gershkovich and Paul Whelan’s release.
“The secretary made it clear that we condemn his detention and we want him back as soon as possible,” Kirby said. “So we have been, you know, pushing hard since the moment we found out that that he was detained by the Russians on ridiculous charges, and that’s not going to change one way or the other.”
In a news release following the call, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated, “The future fate of this U.S. citizen will be decided by the court of law in light of the established facts of his unlawful activities. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow has been duly notified of his detention in keeping with the existing procedure.”
Russian state media outlet TASS reported Gershkovich’s defense has appealed his detention, citing the court. It reported he will be held at Lefortovo for the next couple months — a facility that gained notoriety for its brutality during Stalin’s reign. Gershkovich is the first American reporter arrested for espionage since the Cold War era. The Russian media outlet also reported the Moscow Public Monitoring Commission said Gershkovich had no complaints about the condition of his incarceration, which is not independently verified information.
A U.S. State Department spokesperson said the U.S. Embassy in Moscow hasn’t received any approval for consular access in the past week. Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vasily Nebenzya, indicated consular access would be provided but offered no further details including on the timing.
Russia assumed the presidency on the UN Security Council this week. Despite questions on Gershkovich’s detention, Nebenzya tried to separate the investigative process.
Russia’s FSB accused Gershkovich of collecting “information constituting a state secret about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex,” according to its statement. Russia has provided no evidence of their accusations, and the WSJ has “vehemently denied” them. It comes as Russia has cracked down on press reporting during its war in Ukraine.
Foreign leaders have echoed the condemnation of Russia’s actions and calls for Gershkovich’s release. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg expects it to be discussed during a foreign ministers meeting this week.
“I join the United States in their call on Russia to release the American journalist, Evan Gershkovich, to ensure that his rights to work as a journalist are respected,” Stoltenberg said. “His arrest is of great concern. It is important to respect freedom of the press, the rights of journalists and their right to ask questions and to do their job. So therefore, we call on this immediate release.”
Espionage carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison in Russia.
William Pomeranz — the director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, who has practice experience in the U.S. and Moscow — said there are virtually no acquittals in criminal cases in Russia.
“There is no possibility if it goes to trial that he can get an acquittal,” Pomeranz said. “It most likely will be a secret trial because it is an espionage trial.”
The administration has made securing the release of wrongfully detained U.S. citizens a priority. WNBA star Brittney Griner was released last year in a prisoner swap with a Russian arms dealer. Griner was arrested Russia at the start of its war in Ukraine, over Russian drug charges. The administration has not yet secured a release for Paul Whelan, who has been detained since 2018.
“We’ve been trying to negotiate a deal with Paul Whelan, who has also been charged with espionage, and that hasn’t happened,” Pomeranz said. “As I said, the charge of espionage is really a much greater charge in the Russian Federation than other charges, and I think that will make it very difficult to make a deal to get this journalists out.”
It’s an example of Putin’s increasing authoritarianism in Russia, according to Dr. Mary Glantz — a senior adviser for the Russia and Europe Center at the United States Institute of Peace and retired career foreign service member.
“He’s a journalist; he gathers information. That’s his job,” Glantz said. “But with Putin sent with the Kremlin saying, ‘No, he’s a spy…’ They’ve raised the stakes and their ability to use him as a pawn, so I would worry about his safety and his ability to get out. And I worry that they’re going to really want the information from him about who we spoke to, in writing articles like he wrote.”
Glantz said relations between the U.S. and Russia are at the worst point since the end of the Cold War.
“This is just another brick in that wall of hostile relationships between the hostile relationship between us,” Glantz said. “I’m not sure to what degree. It makes it even worse. It’s not good. And as an American, I would be very hesitant about going to Russia.”
U.S. officials have urged Americans to leave Russia and not travel to the country.