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Journalist Evan Gershkovich
Evan Gershkovich was arrested in RussiaImage: DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP
ConflictsUnited States of America

Opinion: US journalist Gershkovich's fate in Russia unclear

Konstantin Eggert
March 31, 2023

The Wall Street Journal reporter may find himself part of a ‘Cold War’-style swap, but that's far from certain, writes DW's Konstantin Eggert.


This is a 'fire and brimstone' editorial one does not find in newspapers these days. The Wall Street Journal called on the US administration to expel the Russian ambassador to Washington and those Russian journalists (mostly staff of state-owned media) who still remain accredited in America. This in retaliation for the arrest on March 30th of the paper's Russia correspondent Evan Gershkovich. He was detained in the city of Yekaterinburg in the Urals area, flown to Moscow, and arrested on charges of espionage. No such thing has happened in Russia since 1986. Back then, Nicholas Danilloff, a correspondent for the US News and World Report, was arrested by the KGB on similar charges. However after a few weeks he was released and flown home to the US after Ronald Reagan and Michail Gorbachev agreed to swap Daniloff for a Russian arrested in the US on suspicion of espionage.

Bugs, taps and other harassment

Gershkovich, who held a Russian ministry of foreign affairs accreditation, was just doing his job —  researching a piece on the Russians' reactions to the ongoing invasion of Ukraine and activities of the infamous Wagner mercenary group. Its recruitment base is mostly provincial cities.

Ukrainian soldiers at the frontline
Gershkovich was reporting on how Russians view the invasion of UkraineImage: LIBKOS/AP Photo/picture alliance

That Gershkovich is innocent is almost certain. Anyone who has knowledge of how foreign correspondents work in Moscow (as this author does) will tell you that it would take someone straight out of a John Le Carre novel to engage in espionage there under journalistic cover.

Your phones are bugged, your office and apartment (usually rented out by a state entity called The Foreign Ministry Directorate of the Diplomatic Corps) too. Russia's secret police, the FSB, know where you are and what you do, especially when on assignment outside of Moscow.

Although a Russian citizen, I had for example my own conversations played back to me on the phone. A British colleague who had sharply criticized President Vladimir Putin's suppression of the pro-democracy protests in Moscow in 2012 had — in his absence — furniture in his home moved and windows opened or shut as a warning of sorts. Spying in such conditions would be suicidal and ineffective.

A Swap in Brazil?

The FSB woud not capture Gershkovich unless it knew 100% that it would not displease Vladimir Putin. So Gershkovich from now until his release is the Kremlin's prisoner.

Personally, I think there may be several coinciding reasons for the arrest. Firstly, it sends a signal to all foreigners in Russia: ‘No one is safe. Shut up or get out'.

But more importantly, Gershkovih is now a prized asset that must be exchanged, in addition to an ex-US Marine, Paul Whelan, serving 16 years in a Russian prison for alleged espionage.

But who could the two be swapped for? Since the Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout was swapped last year for the basketball star Brittney Griner, the Americans hold no one of particular interest to Moscow. Those who are — for example, Vadim Krasikov, serving a sentence in Germany for killing a former Chechern war commander, or suspected Russian agents, arrested in Slovenia — are not under US jurisdiction.

Viktor Bout held by uniformed police
Arms dealer Viktor Bout was swapped for American basketball player Brittney GrinerImage: Natthawat Wongrat/Zuma/picture alliance

However, Putin and the FSB believe that under certain circumstances the US can pressure its allies to swap those of interest to Moscow for the Americans held in Russia.

There is also another person who may be of particular interest to the Kremlin — Sergei Cherkasov, arrested last year in Brazil. He serves a 15-year sentence for using fake documents to impersonate a Brazilian citizen.The US wants Brazil to extradite him to stand trial for espionage. Under his Brazilian alias 'Victor Muller Ferreira,' Cherkasov studied at the Johns Hopkins University developing his legend (professional jargon for creating 'a convincing life story') as a bona fide Westerner. The FBI says it has evidence that he engaged in spying during his stay in America.

It is not clear whether the US will succeed in persuading the Brazilians to extradite Cherkasov. But if they do, the Americans may get a rare glimpse from him into how  Russian 'illegals' are trained to work — as well as probably a lot of other very useful information.

Russia already tried to get Cherkasov out by pretending he was a covert drug dealer who will serve a sentence at home. But this effort was futile. I am certain that Putin's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov will be discussing Cherkasov's fate when he visits Brazil on April 17. Maybe the Kremlin will try and arrange an international swap with, for instance, Krasikov and Cherkasov exchanged for Whelan and Gershkovich.

Judging by the intense desire in Moscow to save Cherkasov, Putin may even break the traditional parity rule — one person is exchanged for another — and suggest a ‘2 for 1' formula.

Biden's dilemma

However, in the current climate, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it will be difficult for president Joe Biden's administration to easily settle for a traditional ‘Cold War'-style swap.

First and foremost because it would prove that Moscow's strategy of hostage taking works — and encourage the Kremlin to take more in the future. Moreover, it is also possible, although not very likely, that Putin will imprison Evan Gershkovich just to drive home the point that he follows no rules. 

Vladimir Putin
It's likely that Gershkovich's fate lies entirely in the hands of Vladimir PutinImage: Gavriil Grigorov/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

In its editorial, the Wall Street Journal called upon Joe Biden to "escalate" measures against Moscow and win the day by forcing the Kremlin to release Mr Gershkovich. So far President Biden condemned the journalist's arrest.

The editorial board definitely got one thing right –— Putin only respects those who are stronger than him. It is unlikely that Washington will expel the Russian ambassador. But will it find other ways of putting pressure on Moscow in such a way that Evan Gershkovich could go free soon?

Edited by: Andreas Illmer 

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