Russian espionage allegations against US reporters cause outrage

Russian authorities on Thursday arrested a Wall Street Journal reporter on allegations of espionage, sparking an angry reaction in Washington that has tightened already icy US-Russia relations and stoked fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin might launch a new strategy in retaliation for the West has fully accepted opposition to its war in Ukraine.

The Wall Street Journal vehemently denied the allegations against Evan Gershkovich, a veteran journalist who is fluent in Russian. He was detained by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) in the city of Yekaterinburg. Mr Gershkovich only submitted stories from Russia this week, but Russian officials said he uses his credentials as a journalist for “activities unrelated to journalism” and was acting under direct orders from the US government.

It is the first time since the end of the Cold War that Russia has arrested an American journalist for espionage, signaling that Mr Putin is ready to take more aggressive action against perceived Western enemies while his troops fight to stay in their war in gaining ground in Ukraine. now in the second year.

Analysts also warned that the move suggests Mr Putin believes he can use Americans to secure the release of Russian prisoners – a strategy employed last year after US basketball star Brittney Griner was on a trip to Russia had been arrested until the Biden administration agreed to the release of Notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange.

Moscow offered no public evidence to support the allegations against Mr. Gershkovich, which officials in the Biden administration condemned.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre criticized the Kremlin’s crackdown on domestic and foreign media, saying Thursday’s detention was “unacceptable”. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said US consular officials in Russia are working to gain access to the detained reporter.

“We strongly condemn the Kremlin’s continued attempts to intimidate, repress and punish journalists and civil society voices,” Mr Blinken said.

In its own statement, the Journal denied the allegations in a statement about Mr Gershkovich, who works at the newspaper’s Moscow bureau.

“The Wall Street Journal vehemently denies the FSB’s allegations and calls for the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter, Evan Gershkovich,” The Journal said. “We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family.”

The arrest of Mr. Gershkovich will further strain US-Russia relations, which have hit a post-Cold War nadir.

The detention comes just two weeks after an encounter between Russian fighter jets and a US MQ-9 Reaper unmanned drone over the Black Sea that resulted in the American spacecraft crashing into the water, an incident that only fueled fears that there could be a direct conflict between the US and Russia was approaching.

The Kremlin has expressed anger at US and Western military aid to Ukraine, most recently in the bitter struggle for control of the strategic city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk province. Russian troops and hired mercenaries from the Wagner group could not conquer the city despite a bloody offensive that lasted for weeks.

On the surface, Mr. Gershkovich’s arrest appears to have little direct connection to the war in Ukraine.

But the Journal reporter’s latest article highlighted the far-reaching impact Western sanctions have had on Russia’s economy, and questioned whether Mr Putin ordered the detention to silence such critical reporting.

Jeanne Cavelier of the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders told the Associated Press that the arrest “looks like retaliation by Russia against the United States.”

“We’re very concerned because it’s probably a way of intimidating any Western journalists trying to investigate aspects of the war on the ground in Russia,” said Ms Cavelier, head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia unit at the Paris-based group.

Other experts said it was likely that the Kremlin would try to use the jailed journalist as leverage in future prisoner swap negotiations with the US

However, Moscow has denied considering such barter deals.

“I would not even consider this issue now because people who were previously exchanged have already served their sentences,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said, according to Russian state news agencies.

Russian detention of Americans is nothing new. Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive, has been held in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges. His family and the US government say these allegations are completely unfounded.

But American officials said the detention of an accredited journalist was a new low.

Mr. Putin “plays all these little games of bluffing and brinkmanship,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Thursday.

“That’s another matter, but holding an innocent journalist hostage for this is truly despicable and I urge the government to do everything possible to free him,” the New York Democrat said.

— Joseph Clark contributed to this article, which is based in part on intelligence reports.

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