Hostage, Signal or Vengeance? Spotlight on why Russia arrested a WSJ journalist

The decision by Russian authorities to arrest Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich for espionage came under intense scrutiny on Friday, with speculation as to why the Kremlin decided to take a step that was not only provocative but without analogy with post-Soviet Russia.

As the dust settled over Gershkovich’s detention in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg on Thursday, the event looked set to mark a major milestone in the deterioration of already dire relations between Moscow and the capitals. Western.

Few seem to take at face value the spying allegations against a journalist who has lived in Russia for 6 years and has repeatedly received official accreditation from the Russian Foreign Ministry.

While some believe the Kremlin has its eye on a future prisoner swap with the United States, others have suggested Gershkovoich’s arrest may be designed to intimidate foreign journalists as a way to settle scores for limits imposed on Russian journalists in the United States or simply a deliberate attempt to antagonize Washington.

Either way, it became increasingly clear that the orders for Gershkovich’s arrest came from the highest levels in Moscow.

A senior Russian government official who previously worked in the security service told the Moscow Times that military counterintelligence officers from the State Security Service (FSB) flew from Moscow to Yekaterinburg to arrest Gershkovich.

“This is a high-profile case, so it was handled by the FSB’s military counterintelligence service. Moscow agents have much more experience in such cases than their regional counterparts,” said the manager.

Gershkovich leaves a courthouse in Moscow.
Evgenia Novozhenina / Reuters

A serving Kremlin official confirmed to the Moscow Times that the FSB’s military counterintelligence department was handling the case.

News of the arrest was quickly met with statements from senior Russian officials asserting Gershkovich’s guilt.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Thursday that Gershkovich had been caught “in the act”, while Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said his activities in Yekaterinburg did not had “no relation to journalism”.

Some even pointed to the van in which Gershkovich was delivered to the Moscow courtroom as evidence of the “demonstrative” nature of the case.

“Look at the van. The (Russian) tricolor is not an accident or a coincidence, but a deliberate choice of the FSB,” a Kremlin official told the Moscow Times.

Some quickly concluded that the Kremlin ordered Gershkovich’s detention in order to exchange him for Russians held in Western prisons.

“It seems that they have taken a hostage”, tweeted R.Politik, the analytics firm run by Russian political expert Tatiana Stanovaya, shortly after news of Gershkovich’s detention first broke.

Speculation about who the Kremlin might seek to extract from Western prisons has centered on Maria Mayer and Ludwig Gisch, alleged russian spies under deep cover arrested in Slovenia in December, and Sergei Cherkasov, a suspected Russian agent accused earlier this month in the United States.

A van carrying Gershkovich leaves the Lefortovo court in Moscow.  Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/TASS

A van carrying Gershkovich leaves the Lefortovo court in Moscow.
Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/TASS

It would not be the first time that high-profile arrests of foreigners in Russia have appeared designed to increase the Kremlin’s influence.

Last year Washington released notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was serving a prison sentence in the United States, in exchange for American basketball star Brittney Griner, who was convicted of drug trafficking in Russia.

“I think it’s a response to (the) couple’s arrest in Slovenia,” a former senior Kremlin official told the Moscow Times when asked about Gershkovich.

Others have suggested that Gershkovich’s arrest could be the Kremlin sending a signal to foreign journalists in Russia who, unlike their independent Russian counterparts, have largely been allowed to work freely since the start of the war.

There was also speculation that it could be the Kremlin’s response to what it sees as restrictions on Russian journalists working in Western countries, or even growing US military support for Ukraine.

“It’s a message like ‘your guys don’t belong here,'” another Kremlin official told the Moscow Times on Friday.

The last known case of a foreign journalist accused of spying in Russia dates back to 1986, when Nicholas Daniloff, an American journalist, was stopped by the Soviet government in retaliation for the arrest of a Soviet spy in the United States. He was allowed to leave the Soviet Union a few weeks later.

Although there are no plans for a possible exchange between the United States and Russia, such exchanges only took place after the prisoner in Russia was officially sentenced – a process that could take months or even years.

There is no doubt that Gershkovich’s arrest is likely to be another blow to relations between Washington and Moscow.

“It undoubtedly brings the relationship between Russia and the United States to a new level of confrontation,” tweeted R. Politik from analyst Stanovaya.

US officials immediately condemned the Kremlin for this incident.

Asked Friday about Gershkovich’s arrest, US President Joe Biden said“Let him go. There is a process.

And, in a editorialthe WSJ said the arrest of its reporter meant the United States needed to take a tougher line with Russia.

“The Biden administration will have to consider diplomatic and political escalation,” the WSJ said. “Expelling the Russian ambassador to the United States, as well as all Russian journalists working here, would be the minimum to be expected.”

Peskov said on Friday there was ‘no reason’ to deport all Russian journalists working in the United States, according to the Interfax news agency. reported.

Among the Russian officials who spoke to The Moscow Times – all of whom requested anonymity to speak freely – there appeared to be little desire to compromise.

“Everyone go home. And our people there (in the United States) will leave as well,” a senior government official said.

“We are much closer to the war, so we have to reduce the number of contacts.”

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