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, the KGB’s successor agency said on Thursday that 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.
Gershkovich’s arrest, the first time Russia has put a US reporter behind bars on spying charges since the Cold War, comes as president Vladimir Putin’s government is ramping up pressure on journalists and hostility to the west as his invasion of Ukraine continues to sputter.
Russia also exchanged detained Americans for Russian nationals held in the US in two exchanges last year, raising the possibility Moscow was preparing for a potential future prisoner swap.
The FSB claimed Gershkovich, 31, “was collecting information constituting a state secret about one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex” in Ekaterinburg, the largest city in Russia’s central Urals region, which is home to several major defence factories.
“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 newspaper said. “We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family.”
The Kremlin quickly backed the FSB’s charges, indicating Gershkovich’s arrest had likely been sanctioned from the top rather than initiated by local security services in Ekaterinburg.
Like all foreign journalists in Russia, Gershkovich, 31, had accreditation from Russia’s foreign ministry, which requires passing background checks from the security services.
“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.
“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”.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, 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.”
Mediazona, an independent Russian news site, published a video that appeared to show police leading Gershkovich into a Moscow courthouse for a pre-trial detention hearing.
Russia usually holds suspects in espionage cases at the FSB’s notorious Lefortovo prison, including Paul Whelan, a former US Marine currently serving a 16-year sentence in a Russian prison colony on similar charges.
Though Whelan remains in Russia, the US has secured the release of Americans held on less serious charges in prisoner swaps over the past year. Last December, the US and Russia exchanged basketball star Brittney Griner following her conviction on drug possession charges for the notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov, however, said it was too early to speak of an exchange ahead of Gershkovich’s likely conviction. “The exchanges that happened in the past happened with people who were already serving time,” Ryabkov said, according to Interfax. ”
Gershkovich had travelled to Ekaterinburg for a story on the Wagner paramilitary group that is part of the Russian offensive in Ukraine, according to friends.
A local media report said Gershkovich was 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.
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.”
Additional reporting by Anastasia Stognei in Riga