What The Arrest Of WSJ Reporter Evan Gershkovich Says About Russia

Russia accused the Wall Street Journal reporter of spying — with no proof — which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was arrested by Russian authorities last week on espionage charges, becoming the first U.S. journalist to be detained in the country on spying accusations since the Cold War.

Both U.S. officials and the Journal have denied the unsubstantiated allegations, and called on Russia to release him.

Espionage carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison in Russia.

Gershkovich, who has reportedly appealed his detention, met his lawyers Tuesday for the first time.

“They said Evan’s health is good, and he is grateful for the outpouring of support from around the world,” WSJ editor-in-chief Emma Tucker and Dow Jones CEO and WSJ publisher Almar Latour said in a statement. “We stand with Evan and continue to call for his immediate release.”

His case remains “a priority” for President Joe Biden, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Tuesday, adding that the charges are “ridiculous.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov Sunday, demanding that Russia free both Gershkovich as well as fellow imprisoned American Paul Whelan.

Blinken and Lavrov “also discussed the importance of creating an environment that permits diplomatic missions to carry out their work,” Vedant Patel, principal deputy spokesperson at the State Department, said in a statement.

Jean-Pierre confirmed the State Department is currently working toward getting Gershkovich designated as “wrongfully detained,” which would allow the department’s Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs to take the lead on the case. CNN on Tuesday reported that process could be complete “in the coming days.”

But, overall, Gershkovich’s detention has raised serious questions about Russia’s objectives as it continues to grow more hostile toward the U.S.

Who Is Evan Gershkovich?

Gershkovich, 31, was raised in Princeton, New Jersey, by two Jewish Soviet Union refugees in a Russian-speaking home.

After graduating from Bowdoin College in Maine in 2014, where he studied philosophy, Gershkovich spent a year in Thailand as part of a Princeton fellowship.

He later moved to New York, where he took a temporary job as a night shift worker at The New York Times’ foreign desk before securing a full-time news assistant job at the newspaper. He left the Times in 2017 to join The Moscow Times.

Nora Biette-Timmons, a deputy editor for Jezebel who went to college with Gershkovich and edited his work on the school newspaper, told HuffPost his move to Russia was “very on brand for him.”

“He was always up for a challenge,” Biette-Timmons said. “Always up for something new, something to give himself an opportunity to better his skills.” (Biette-Timmons has previously worked for HuffPost.)

In 2020, he started covering Russia and Ukraine for the Agence France-Presse, and then became a correspondent for the Journal a month before Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022.

“He definitely had a baptism of fire with the Wall Street Journal, and one he handled with absolute aplomb,” said Gráinne McCarthy, the Journal’s chief digital editor, International.

McCarthy said the reaction to the news of Gershkovich’s detention within the Journal was one of “absolute shock.”

Eliot Brown, a reporter based in the Journal’s London newsroom who is friends with Gershkovich, said the two chatted over text messages the day before he was arrested.

Brown reached out to Gershkovich again the following day with the statistics on one of his stories, but later realized that text was never delivered.

“Maybe the only solace I have in all of this is like, he was not naive,” Brown told HuffPost. “He knew there were risks, we talked about them, we debated them.”

Apart from a tenacious reporter, Gershkovich was described by colleagues as funny, outgoing and a big soccer fan, who supported Arsenal and the U.S. men’s national team.

A group of his friends and colleagues started an ad hoc committee to raise awareness on his case.

Biette-Timmons is in charge of the Twitter account @FreeGershkovich sharing updates on his condition, while the group has also created a website, displaying a clock showing how long Gershkovich has been in Russian custody.

While this work has been a way for the group to channel their anxiety into something helpful for Gershkovich, Biette-Timmons said “the anxiety remains because he’s in Russian prison, and that’s really scary.”

What Does Russia Stand To Win From Detaining Gershkovich?

Russia arrested Gershkovich, who was accredited by the country’s foreign ministry, on March 29, in Yekaterinburg where he was on assignment. The Federal Security Service accused Gershkovich of trying to get classified information about a Russian-military industrial complex on behalf of the U.S., according to The Associated Press.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters Gershkovich was “caught red-handed,” without offering any proof to back up that claim.

“Espionage charges are often the way that authoritarian governments go about these arbitrary arrests, because any evidence to the contrary would be something classified that the public would never see anyway,” said Danielle Gilbert, the Edelson fellow in U.S. foreign policy and international security at the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College.

Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), who is experienced in hostage negotiations, has described Gershkovich’s targeting as “tit for tat” for U.S. charges brought against Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov last month.

The Justice Department said Cherkasov operated as an “illegal” agent for the Russian Intelligence Agency, while posing as a Brazilian student at a graduate school in Washington. Cherkasov is currently behind bars in Brazil facing fraud charges, but the U.S. could look to get him extradited, according to the Journal.

Russia agreed to release WNBA star Brittney Griner in December in exchange for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout. Griner spent about nine months in Russian custody after she was arrested when police said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage.

WNBA star Brittney Griner was detained in Russia for about nine months in 2022. She had been sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison before the U.S. negotiated her release.
WNBA star Brittney Griner was detained in Russia for about nine months in 2022. She had been sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison before the U.S. negotiated her release.
via Associated Press

Earlier last year, the U.S. agreed to free a convicted Russian drug trafficker for former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed.

With regards to Gershkovich’s case, Gilbert told HuffPost while “the timing suggests that it was tit for tat,” we still don’t have hard evidence to assertively say so.

Julia Ioffe, Puck News founding partner and Washington correspondent, reported Gershkovich’s detention might also be payback for the arrest warrant issued for Russian President Vladimir Putin by the International Criminal Court for war crimes related to his alleged role in the deportation of Ukrainian children. (The U.S. doesn’t recognize the ICC’s jurisdiction.)

“There was a feeling that a Rubicon had been crossed and that all semblance of decency and abiding by international norms had been abandoned by the West, with America leading the charge,” Ioffe wrote last week.

Overall, though, Gilbert said the most important thing for the U.S. and other governments right now is to find effective ways to deter other countries from pursuing such action against their citizens.

“Probably that means figuring out a pair of actions that can first get citizens home, and then punish the perpetrators of these wrongful and arbitrary arrests,” Gilbert added.

What Gershkovich’s Arrest Means For The Press In Russia

In targeting a foreign journalist, Russia is also sending a message to the international press.

While Russia was already a dangerous place to report from for local journalists, it was typically accepted that international correspondents could operate freely for the most part.

“By detaining the American journalist Evan Gershkovich, Russia has crossed the Rubicon and sent a clear message to foreign correspondents that they will not be spared from the ongoing purge of the independent media in the country,” said Gulnoza Said, the coordinator of Committee to Protect Journalists’ Europe and Central Asia program.

Olga Oliker, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, echoed Said, telling HuffPost “this is at its core a terrifying signal on press freedom, on the ability for journalists to work in Russia whether they are Russian or western and certainly [Russia’s] willingness to continue to pick fights with western countries.”

Many international news organizations have already pulled their reporters from Russia, and others are closely monitoring current developments to assess to what degree they can maintain a presence in the country.

Gershkovich’s last story for the Journal before his detention, co-written with fellow WSJ reporter Georgi Kantchev, was published on March 28. The report laid out the challenges facing Russia’s economy amid the continuation of the war and western sanctions.

His arrest suggests that “whatever we’re going through with Russia, right now, is [in] no way better than the Cold War,” said Liana Fix, a fellow for Europe at the Council of Foreign Relations.

“And in some ways, perhaps even worse than the Cold War,” Fix added.

Gilbert added that cases like Gershkovich’s unfold “in the timeline of months or years.”

“Unfortunately, even with this early attention, I think we need to be prepared for the long haul,” Gilbert said.

Akbar Shahid Ahmed contributed to this report.


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