Did Putin Approve Detention of Wall Street Journal’s Moscow Correspondent?

Evan Gershkovich was working on an article about the Wagner mercenary group.

Mikhail Metzel/pool via AP
President Putin speaks during a video address at Moscow December 20, 2022. Mikhail Metzel/pool via AP

A Wall Street Journal reporter has been detained in Russia on allegations of spying — a stark reminder that Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on press freedoms in Russia since the invasion of Ukraine is undiminished. 

Russian state-affiliated media reported that Russia’s infamous federal security service, the FSB, detained Evan Gershkovich on Thursday while he was on assignment in the city of Yekaterinburg. Mr. Gershkovich’s detention, which amid heightened tensions between Russia and America appears to be politically motivated, was not characterized as an arrest.

According to a statement from the FSB, Mr. Gershkovich was detained “while trying to obtain secret information” pertaining to “the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex.” He allegedly did so “on the instructions of the United States.” 

As per that statement, “the illegal activities of American citizen Evan Gershkovich, born in 1991, a correspondent for the Moscow bureau of the American newspaper The Wall Street Journal, accredited at the Russian Foreign Ministry, who is suspected of spying in the interests of the U.S. government, have been stopped.”

The maximum punishment under the relevant article on “espionage” of the Russian criminal code is imprisonment for up to 20 years. Neither Mr. Gershkovich’s whereabouts nor the conditions in which he was being held were immediately known nor was there any public comment from the Journal, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, as of Thursday morning in Europe. 

Whether the American embassy in Moscow has been able to contact Mr. Gershkovich or whether the reporter has had recourse to an attorney was not immediately known.

Initial word of the reporter’s detention in the large industrial city came via another employee of the newspaper, who called a Russian public relations professional, Yaroslav Shirshnikov, overnight on Wednesday to alert him that Mr. Gershkovich was unable to be reached. According to the Russian website 66ru, he had conducted an interview with Mr. Shishnikov prior to his detention.

Mr. Gershkovich has reportedly been based in Russia for about six years, previously working for the Agence France-Presse and the Moscow Times. According to 66.ru, he traveled to Yekaterinburg two weeks ago to write an article about the Wagner mercenary group and Ukraine, and then returned to Moscow. On March 28, the website reported, he said he planned to return to Yekaterinburg. 

Mr. Shisnikov wrote on Telegram that Mr. Gershkovich may actually have been detained on Wednesday, when security officers are said to have entered a restaurant and taken an identified man with a sweater over his head into a minibus with an unknown destination.

A Russian journalist, Dmitry Kolezev, told the Moscow Times that he assumes the reason for the detention “was Evan’s journalistic work.” Mr. Kolezev also said that two of his sources confirmed that the detention had taken place, without specifying the exact details of the time and place. 

In the wake of the invasion of Ukraine last year, Russia passed harsh censorship laws that prompted many foreign and Russian  journalists to leave the country. Even the Moscow Times is now published outside of Russia. 

President Putin has had something of a field day with those laws, under which referring to the war in Ukraine as anything other than a “military operation” may constitute a criminal offense. 

To date, though, it is mainly Russians who have fallen prey to the draconian legislation. In the latest example, a St. Petersburg court sentenced a 54-year-old man to five-and-a-half years in prison for criticizing the war. 

In a post he made on the Russian social media platform Vkontakte, Oleg Belousov blended the name Putin with Hitler, writing, “Putin is traitor number one, who plundered the country and is a war criminal. And who started these murders? Putler.”

Mr. Belousov pleaded not guilty to charges of “publicly spreading fake news about the Russian armed forces and calling for extremism.”

While Mr. Putin has yet to comment about the detention of Mr. Gershkovich, given the high profile of a newspaper such as the Journal, it is unlikely that the incident could have escaped his notice. It is also reasonable to speculate that the Kremlin, if not the Russian strongman himself, sanctioned the detention. 

The development comes as Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said that Moscow has stopped sharing information about its nuclear forces, including notices about missile tests, with Washington. Mr Putin suspended Russia’s participation in the New Start treaty last month. 

Whether Mr. Ryabkov’s announcement and Mr. Gershkovich’s detention are related was not immediately clear. 

The New York Sun

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