Escalation: Russia arrests US journalist for alleged espionage

Alexander Zemlianichenko

What qualifies as “espionage” in Vladimir Putin’s Russia? Honest reporting of his war efforts, especially the brutality of his mercenary Wagner Group, would get defined as “spying” by the Putin regime without a doubt. Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich discovered that the hard way overnight, as Russian security forces arrested him in Yekaterinburg and will charge him in Moscow today.


Now Joe Biden has some tough decisions ahead:

The Federal Security Service said Thursday it had detained Evan Gershkovich, a U.S. citizen, in the eastern city of Yekaterinburg.

The FSB said in a statement that Mr. Gershkovich, “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.”

“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 Journal said. “We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family.” …

The FSB said it had “stopped the illegal activities” Mr. Gershkovich was conducting and that an espionage case had been opened against him in Yekaterinburg.

What was Gershkovich doing in Yekaterinburg, more than a thousand miles east of Moscow by car? His job, of course, drilling down into Putin’s attempted conquest of Ukraine and his reliance on Yevgeny Prigozhin’s bloodthirsty mercs and impressed convicts. The Guardian reports that the story took him to the eastern side of the Urals, but neither the Guardian nor the WSJ have much to say about the nature of the story.

However, the Guardian does note that Putin wants to trade for more captured Russian spies in the West, and may have seen Gershkovich as a valuable hostage:

High-profile arrests of foreigners in Russia often appear to be designed to boost an “exchange pool” of prisoners that Russia can swap for Russians arrested abroad. Last year, Russian authorities arrested the US basketball player Brittney Griner on drugs charges and sentenced her to nine years in prison. She was swapped in December for Viktor Bout, an arms dealer nicknamed the “Merchant of Death”, who had been held long-term in the US.

Last week, sources in Slovenia said negotiations were under way between western countries and Russia for the possible exchange of two alleged Russian deep-cover spies arrested in the country, but that it had not been possible to reach an agreement. Some observers speculated that bringing espionage charges against Gershkovich could be aimed at improving Russia’s negotiating hand.


There’s a difference between Griner and Gershkovich, though. Griner admittedly broke Russian drug laws, even if the sentence for possession/smuggling of marijuana vapes was somewhat draconian. Gershkovich appears to have been arrested for no reason whatsoever except asking inconvenient questions about the Putin regime. Given the proximity of his arrest to the failure of Putin’s diplomats to swap for their own spies, this arrest looks even more suspicious.

That brings us back to Biden. The last time he faced this situation, Biden swapped the world’s most notorious arms dealer — Viktor Bout, the ‘Merchant of Death’ — for Griner. No doubt the pressure on Biden to cut a deal for Gerhskovich will be even higher, especially from the media. But swapping Gershkovich for actual spies will get played in Russia as a confirmation of the charges against him and will add to Putin’s use of the US as his propaganda bete noire.

So what should Biden do? He should demand the immediate return of Gershkovich without conditions. When that doesn’t work — and it won’t — Biden should follow Hugh Hewitt’s advice as a start:


After that, Biden should order the FBI to round up some or all known Russian intelligence operators in the US and expel them immediately, too. The FBI likes to collect intel rather than arrest such spies in order to gain more knowledge of their organization, and they may not have good cases to present in open court for espionage trials, but they can certainly get non-US citizens declared persona non grata.

And when that doesn’t work, Biden can order all Russian financial institutions excluded from the SWIFT banking system. The US excluded a few that are directly connected to Putin’s war effort, but it’s time to boot the rest of them. And then, Biden should make clear that any institutions with SWIFT access that does business with Russian financial institutions will find themselves excluded from it as well.

Putin isn’t playing around, and neither should we.

Meanwhile, matters don’t exactly look rosy for Putin and two of his closest partners in the war. According to ISW, Prigozhin is suddenly reversing himself on laws against criticizing Russian forces in order to soften his image and that of the Wagner group after Russian prosecutors went after a father whose 12-year-old daughter drew an antiwar message in class:

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin seized on the recent story of the sentencing of a Tula Oblast father for his 12-year-old daughter’s antiwar drawing to promote the Wagner Group’s reputation and ameliorate his own personal image. Prigozhin’s press service posted a letter on March 28 signed by Prigozhin, Wagner commander Dmitry Utkin, and Wagner-affiliated director of the “Liga” veteran’s organization Andrey Troshev addressed to Tula Oblast prosecutor Alexander Gritsaenko stating that the signatories consider Gritsaenko’s issuance of a two-year prison sentence to Aleksey Moskalev unfair.[7] Moskalev was charged with “discrediting the armed forces” after his 12-year-old daughter Masha drew an antiwar picture with a Ukrainian flag in her school art class in April 2022.[8] Masha was taken into state custody and now lives in a juvenile shelter, and Moskalev fled house arrest the night before his sentencing and was sentenced to two years in prison in absentia. … Prigozhin’s response to Moskalev’s sentencing is particularly ironic considering that Prigozhin was initially one of the biggest and loudest supporters of the law on punishing those who ”discredit” Russian forces.


His other partner, Ramzan Kadyrov, may be facing an uprising again in Chechnya — just as Putin is pressing for more Chechens to fight in Ukraine:

Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov’s demonstrative response to an attack on a police station in Chechnya suggests that he may be concerned about the stability of his authoritarian rule. Kadyrov claimed that Chechen authorities killed two unidentified men attempting to conduct an attack in Gudermes, Chechnya on the night of March 28, and Russian sources amplified footage purporting to show the two men shooting at a local police department.[14] Kadyrov’s Special Forces University is in Gudermes, although it is not clear if the attack was connected to the facility. Kadyrov published footage of himself, his 15-year-old son, and an entourage of Chechen officials and security personnel visiting the scene of the attack and inspecting the mangled bodies of the assailants.[15] Kadyrov likely meant this demonstrative inspection of the bodies to enhance his strongman image and signal to Chechens that any form of internal resistance to his rule will be eliminated. The fact that Kadyrov’s response to the attack was so immediate and heavy-handed suggests that he is concerned about the potential for internal resistance within Chechnya to undermine his authoritarian rule of the autonomous republic. Kadyrov recently meet with President Vladimir Putin on March 13 to promote Chechnya’s relevance in the Russian political and military sphere, and ISW assessed that Putin may seize upon Kadyrov‘s fears about falling out of favor with Putin to pressure Kadyrov into increasing the role of Chechen fighters in combat operations in Ukraine.[16] Kadyrov likely sees any sign of internal instability in Chechnya as a threat to Putin’s continued favor.


This is another reason why Putin needs to amplify his anti-American propaganda. He needs to give restive populations a villain other than himself on which to focus, especially in Chechnya, which Putin brutally brought to heel in the first years of his reign. Gerhskovich is just a pawn in more than one Putin machination.

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