Russia’s security service said it detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in the Russian city of Ekaterinburg on suspicion of spying, in its first arrest of a foreign journalist since Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The Federal Security Service (FSB) said Gershkovich, a US national, “is suspected of espionage in the interests of the American government”, a crime that carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison, according to a statement published on Thursday.
“He was collecting information constituting a state secret about one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex,” the FSB claimed without providing evidence of the alleged crime.
The FSB provided few details of the journalist’s detention except that it occurred in Ekaterinburg, the largest city in Russia’s central Urals region.
Dmitry Peskov, spokesperson of President Vladimir Putin, told reporters on Thursday that Gershkovich was “caught red-handed” but declined to give further details. “This is not about suspicions,” he said.
Maria Zakharova, Russia’s foreign ministry spokesperson, said Gershkovich’s trip to Ekaterinburg “had nothing to do with journalism”.
“Unfortunately, this is not the first time that the status of a ‘foreign correspondent’, a journalistic visa and accreditation are used by foreigners in our country to cover up activities that are not journalism,” Zakharova wrote on Telegram. “This is not the first time a well-known westerner has been caught red-handed.”
The Wall Street Journal said it was “deeply concerned for the safety of Mr Gershkovich”.
A local media report suggested Gershkovich was in the city to report on the Wagner mercenary group that is part of the Russian offensive in Ukraine. The notoriously brutal group, founded and led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, is composed of hardened fighters whose exploits stretch to the Middle East and Africa, as well as violent criminals recruited by Prigozhin from many of Russia’s far-flung prisons. Wagner’s recent efforts have been focused on the grinding battle of Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine.
The local media report cited Yaroslav Shirshikov, a local public relations specialist, who said he had met with Gershkovich about two weeks ago and was planning to meet him again when he returned to Ekaterinburg on or around March 28.
Shirshikov wrote on Telegram that Gershkovich might have been detained on Wednesday, when FSB agents stormed into a local restaurant and took a man with a sweater pulled over his head into a minibus.
Russian political analysts suggested that Moscow may have detained him in the hope of facilitating another prisoner exchange with Washington.
“It looks like they took a hostage,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She said the Kremlin had a list of Russians held in the west who it would like to see released.
In December, Washington and Moscow exchanged US basketball star Brittney Griner for the notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, who had been imprisoned in the US for 12 years.
“This, of course, is a shock,” Stanovaya said, adding that it “brings relations between Russia and the United States to a new round of confrontation”.
A biography listed on the paper’s website describes Gershkovich as a reporter covering Russia, Ukraine and the former Soviet Union. A Russian speaker, Gershkovich has been based in Moscow for six years and is among the journalists who have covered the war in Ukraine. Like all journalists based in Moscow, he is accredited by Russia’s foreign ministry. He previously worked as a reporter for Agence France-Presse and the Moscow Times, following a stint as a researcher for the New York Times’ Moscow bureau.
Media freedom groups expressed alarm at the arrest and urged Russia to immediately release him. “It’s the first arrest of a foreign reporter since the war began,” said Jeanne Cavelier, head of eastern Europe and Central Asia desk at Reporters Without Borders. “We know that he was investigating the military company Wagner owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin in Ekaterinburg and he was reporting on the attitude of Russians towards the war.”
She said many Wagner fighters were allegedly recruited in Ekaterinburg, which could explain why he was charged with spying.
“It is very alarming if journalists are being targeted for retaliatory measures for their country of origin,” Cavelier said. “We are very worried and alarmed by this arrest.”
Foreign journalists such as Gershkovich and a few independent local journalists remaining in Russia “offer the world a rare glimpse from the ground after Putin’s government forced hundreds of journalists to flee from prosecution following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine”, Gulnoza Said, Europe and Central Asia programme co-ordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, told the Financial Times.
“Knowing Russian authorities’ treatment of other journalists accused of espionage, like Ivan Safronov, who is serving a lengthy prison sentence in retaliation for his journalism, I am worried about the treatment Gershkovich may be subjected to,” she added.