President Joe Biden did not mince his words when responding to the detainment of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was arrested by Russia’s Federal Security Bureau (FSB) on spying charges on Thursday.
“Let him go,” Biden said on Friday as he boarded a helicopter. The publication said its journalist’s arrest is the first incident in which an American journalist has been detained for alleged espionage since the Cold War.
On Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called his Russian counterpart, saying the detention of Gershkovich as well as former Marine Paul Whelan is “unacceptable.”
“Secretary Blinken conveyed the United States’ grave concern over Russia’s unacceptable detention of a U.S. citizen journalist,” an official statement of the call said. “Secretary Blinken further urged the Kremlin to immediately release wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Paul Whelan. The Secretary and Foreign Minister Lavrov also discussed the importance of creating an environment that permits diplomatic missions to carry out their work.”
On Thursday, following Gershkovich’s arrest, Blinken wrote in a statement: “In the strongest possible terms, we condemn the Kremlin’s continued attempts to intimidate, repress, and punish journalists and civil society voices.”
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Friday: “The State Department is working very hard to get a counselor…to Evan, which is something that we do for all Americans that are detained.”
On Thursday, she also said that the “espionage charges are ridiculous. The targeting of American citizens by Russian government is unacceptable. We condemn the detention of Mr. Gershkovich in the strongest terms. We also condemn the Russian government’s continued targeting and repression of journalists.”
The journalist was arrested on Wednesday while reporting in Yekaterinburg, around 800 miles east of Moscow, according to the Wall Street Journal. In response to the detainment, the Journal said it “vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter, Evan Gershkovich,” adding, “We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family.” Gershkovich speaks fluent Russian and has accreditation from the Russian Foreign Ministry to work as a journalist in the country.
The FSB said that Gershkovich was “acting on the instructions of the American side, collected information constituting a state secret about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex.” Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, also said: “It is not about a suspicion, it is about the fact that [Gershkovich] was caught red-handed.” Gershkovich will reportedly be held in custody until May 29; the charges against him carry a maximum prison sentence of 20 years.
News outlets have also condemned the detainment. On Friday, in a letter addressed to the Ambassador of Russia to the United States Anatoly I. Antonov, executives from news organizations—including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, BBC, Associated Press, and Washington Post—asked for the journalist’s release, writing: “Gershkovich’s unwarranted and unjust arrest is a significant escalation in your government’s anti-press actions. Russia is sending the message that journalism within your borders is criminalized and that foreign correspondents seeking to report from Russia do not enjoy the benefits of the rule of law.”
The news of Gershkovich’s detainment is monumental not only because it is remarkably unusual, but also because it falls at a time where tensions between the US and Russia are high due to their positions on the ongoing war in Ukraine, and as high-profile prison swaps between the two superpowers have made recent headlines.
Some experts suspect Gershkovich was arrested in order to be used in yet another prison swap. Ivan Pavlov, a defense attorney who has worked on espionage cases, told The Guardian: “They’ve chosen a well-known journalist from an authoritative media outlet. The idea is to have an ace up their sleeve for negotiations.”
Unlike basketball star Brittney Griner and former Marine Trevor Reed, who were detained in 2022 and 2019, respectively, for charges other than espionage and were freed in exchange for the freedom of Russian detainees imprisoned in the US, former Marine Paul Whelan was arrested in Russia in late 2018 for espionage charges and is still in Russian custody. He was convicted of the charge in 2020; the State Department has deemed Whelan to be wrongfully detained.