• World
  • russia

Russia’s Arrest of a Wall Street Journal Reporter Has More to Do With Geopolitics Than Espionage

7 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

Russia’s security service, the FSB, on Wednesday arrested Evan Gershkovich, an American Wall Street Journal reporter on espionage charges. Gershkovich had extensively reported on Russia, including on the deterioration of the country’s economy.

While it’s too soon to say for certain why Russian authorities detained Gershkovich, experts on press freedom tell TIME that Russia’s claim he committed espionage is dubious. What’s far more likely is that Russia was seeking retaliation or leverage against the U.S.—or both.

The arrest is part “of a pattern with this increasing crackdown on free and independent media,” says Jodie Ginsberg, the president of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Within Russia, prosecutors have opened cases against dozens of Russian journalists, who also face surveillance, violence and are at times physically followed. However, it’s rare for a foreign journalist to face prosecution in Russia, says Ginsberg, as they’re more often deported or blocked from entering the country instead.

Many western outlets pulled some or all of their journalists out of Moscow as a result of the rising tensions following the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, and Gershkovich’s arrest may make it even harder for those who remain.

“It’s a way for the Kremlin to intimidate the western journalists still reporting in Russia,” says Jeanne Cavelier, the head of Eastern Europe and Central Asia Desk for Reporters Without Borders. “If western journalists can’t report on Russia any more, without being arrested without being suspected and accused of espionage, the country may become a black hole of information.”

Who is Evan Gershkovich?

Gershkovich, a 31-year-old U.S. citizen, is a reporter based in the Wall Street Journal’s Moscow bureau. According to the Journal, his parents were Jewish immigrants who settled in the U.S. after leaving the Soviet Union. His father was from Odessa and his mother was St. Petersburg. Gershkovich mastered Russian during his time as an adult in Moscow. Gershkovich had worked as a reporter in Russia since 2017, and joined the publication in January 2022, per the Journal, after reporting for the Moscow Times, Agence France-Presse, and the New York Times. In the most recent story he published, he wrote about the effects of sanctions on the Russian economy.

Gershkovich was arrested on Wednesday in Yekaterinburg, which is north of Kazakhstan, on a reporting trip, the Journal reported. Novaya Gazeta Europe reported that Gershkovich was reporting on Russian attitudes about the private military company Wagner Group.

Why does Russia say it arrested Gershkovich?

The FSB said in a statement that Gershkovich is “suspected of spying in the interests of the American government,” and that its investigative department has initiated an espionage criminal case against him.

“It was established that E. Gershkovich, acting on the assignment of the American side, collected information constituting a government secret about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex,” the statement said.

The Russian news agency TASS reported that Gershkovich pleaded not guilty at a court in Moscow.

“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 in a statement. “We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family.”

What’s the real reason Gershkovich was arrested?

Russia likely arrested Gershkovich to gain leverage against the United States and to send a warning to foreign journalists about the risks of reporting on Russia’s affairs, says Bill McCarren, the executive director of the National Press Club.

“You see that in Iran, and in other places, but we have not seen this in Russia with respect to a Western journalist.” says McCarren. Arresting a foreign journalist on spy charges is a dangerous precedent for Russia, he says. Current Russian law makes anyone doing credible reporting in the country vulnerable. However, according to Ginsberg, Russia had not arrested an American journalist on an espionage charges since 1986, under the Soviet Union.

While McCarren emphasizes that it’s difficult to know exactly why Russia chose to detain Gershkovich, he says that it may partly be due to his reporting. Given Gershkovich’s recent reporting, says McCarren, it isn’t surprising the government targeted him. At the time of his arrest, Gershkovich was reporting on PMC Wagner, a private military company which has played a major role in the war effort. The independent news organization Meduza reported that Gershkovich had also visited Nizhny Tagil, where a defense facility is based. His last byline for the Journal before his arrest was, “Russia’s Economy Is Starting to Come Undone.” Russia has been keen to maintain popular support for the conflict in Russia, so Gershkovich’s recent report may have been particularly disturbing to the Kremlin.

“I think it’s meant to be a warning sign to all Western press that was working in the way Evan was—and there’s not that much of it now, because of the current crackdown,” says McCarren. “This is using the judicial system of Russia as a masquerade for an act of, essentially, terrorism. Hostage taking. Opportunism.”

Russia may also intend to use Gershkovich as a “bargaining chip” to return Sergey Cherkasov, an operative for the GRU foreign military agency, who the Washington Post reported on March 29 was arrested last year, says Cavelier of Reporters Without Borders.

In the past, Cavelier noted, countries have used journalists as spies, which she says makes it “very convenient to accuse journalists.” However, she emphasized that there is “absolutely no indication that he was doing anything other than leading investigative work for Wall Street Journal.” McCarren added that Gershkovich worked for several major media organizations, which carefully vet reporters they hire.

“Authoritarian regimes will try everything they can to smear journalists, accuse them of wrongdoing, in order to detract from their own wrongdoing,” says Ginsberg.

How is the world reacting?

The arrest was widely condemned by his fellow journalists and organizations supporting press freedom, who called for his release.

“We are deeply concerned over Russia’s widely-reported detention of a U.S. citizen journalist. We are in contact with the Wall Street Journal on this situation. Whenever a U.S. citizen is detained abroad, we immediately seek consular access, and seek to provide all appropriate support,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said 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.”

“Arresting a foreign journalist on espionage charges is a serious escalation of Russia’s attacks on journalism,” said Scott Griffen, the deputy director of the International Press Institute in a statement. “It underscores the depth of Russia’s effort to silence coverage of Putin’s war on Ukraine, which has already led to a serious crackdown on Russian journalists. Now, that dragnet appears to be expanding further.”

Pauline Ades-Mevel, a spokesperson for Reporters Without Borders, told the Journal that the group is “alarmed by what looks like retaliation against journalists.”

“Journalists must not be targeted, even if unfortunately they have been regularly since the invasion,” she said.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com