An American journalist has been detained on suspicion of spying for Washington, Russia said Thursday, drawing immediate condemnation from the West and calls for the Wall Street Journal reporter's release.
Evan Gershkovich, 31, is the first foreign journalist to be accused of spying since President Vladimir Putin sent troops to Ukraine a year ago, and the announcement marks a serious escalation in the Kremlin's efforts to silence perceived critics.
The Wall Street Journal said it was deeply concerned for his safety and vehemently denied the FSB security service announcement he was “suspected of spying in the interests of the American government”.
The announcement of his detention provoked criticism from Western authorities and media freedom groups.
French foreign ministry spokeswoman Anne-Claire Legendre said: “We are particularly worried and have had the occasion to condemn the repressive attitude of Russia” towards Russian and foreign media.
International media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said it was “alarmed by what looks like retaliation”.
RSF said Gershkovich “was investigating the military company Wagner” — a mercenary group playing a prominent role in Russia's campaign in Ukraine.
The FSB noted that Gershkovich was working with press accreditation issued by the Russian foreign ministry.
It said he had been detained for gathering information on Russia's “military-industrial complex”.
“The foreigner was detained in Yekaterinburg while attempting to obtain classified information,” the FSB said, referring to a city in central Russia 1,800 kilometres (1,100 miles) east of Moscow.
State news agency RIA Novosti, citing a Moscow court, reported that the FSB has requested the journalist be arrested.
Both the Kremlin and foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova alleged that Gershkovich had been “caught red handed”.
‘New round of confrontation'
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also warned against any reprisals from the US against Russian journalists, saying: “We are hoping that it will not happen and it must not happen”.
Before joining The Wall Street Journal Gershkovich worked for AFP in Moscow.
A fluent Russian speaker, he was previously a reporter based in the Russian capital for The Moscow Times, an English-language news website.
His family immigrated to the United States from Russia when he was a child.
Gershkovich's detention comes as Western journalists in Russia face increasing restrictions.
Staff of Western media outlets often report being tailed, particularly during trips outside of major urban hubs of Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
Many Russians fear speaking to foreign media, due to strict censorship laws adopted in the wake of the Ukraine offensive.
“The problem is… the fact that the way the FSB interprets espionage today means that anyone who is simply interested in military affairs can be imprisoned for 20 years,” Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya said on social media in response to the detention.
“No doubt this brings relations between Russia and the US to a new round of confrontation.”
Several US citizens are currently in detention in Russia and both Washington and Moscow have accused the other of carrying out politically-motivated arrests.
Paul Whelan, a former US Marine, was arrested in Russia in 2018 and handed a 16-year sentence on espionage charges. He is detained in a penal colony south of Moscow.
The foreign ministry said it was too early to discuss a potential swap with Washington.
“I wouldn't raise a question like this now,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies. “Some exchanges that took place in the past, they were for people who were already serving their sentences.”
There have been several high-profile prisoner exchanges between Moscow and Washington over the past year.
In December, Moscow freed US basketball star Brittney Griner — arrested for bringing cannabis oil into the country — in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Russian authorities have also used espionage charges against Russian journalists.
Last year, Russia jailed a former defence reporter, Ivan Safronov, for 22 years on treason charges.
Safronov worked for the business newspaper Kommersant and space agency Roscosmos and was one of Russia's most prominent journalists covering defence.