Russian President Vladimir Putin personally approved the arrest of a US reporter on espionage charges for the first time since the Cold War, according to people familiar with the situation.
The Russian president’s endorsement of the move reflects the growing influence of Kremlin hardliners who push for deepening a confrontation with Washington they view as irreversible, the people said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss matters that aren’t public.
The detention of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich on March 29 triggered angry denunciations from the US and its allies, marking yet another low in US-Russian ties, which have spiraled since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine last year.
“This should be a real wake-up call, not just to the US, but the broader West,” said Alina Polyakova, president of the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington. “It’s signaling that in Putin’s mindset that there’s no going back to a stable and reliable relationship.”
As the war drags into its second year, the Kremlin has increasingly sought to portray it as an existential struggle against a NATO bent on destroying Russia. Moves like the war-crimes warrant against Putin issued by the International Criminal Court last month have only deepened the leadership’s sense that there’s no room to back down in a conflict that it expects to last for years.
Parliament this week rushed through a sharp toughening of penalties for those who seek to avoid military service. The changes create a new online system to deliver call-up notices and ban those who ignore them from leaving the country, closing loopholes many had used to avoid the draft. The measure, expected to be signed into law soon by Putin, has fueled fears a new mobilization may come later this year. The Kremlin says there are currently no such plans. Last year’s call-up of 300,000 reservists triggered the exodus of as many as a million Russians.
The initiative to arrest a US reporter on spying charges for the first time in nearly 40 years came from hawks among top officials of Russia’s security services, the people with knowledge of the issue said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it wasn’t Putin’s decision but was “the total prerogative of the special services. They were doing their job.” Those agencies report directly to the president.
Gershkovich, 31, was detained in Yekaterinburg, about 1400 kilometers (870 miles) east of Moscow, by Federal Security Service (FSB) agents. Charged with spying, which carries a 20-year penalty, he’s now being held in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison and so far Russia hasn’t granted US consular access. The Kremlin says he was caught “red handed,” but has provided no evidence. The Wall Street Journal denies the allegations.
The State Department has formally determined Gershkovich has been wrongfully detained by Russia, which opens the way to the US to negotiate on his behalf.
Russia has pushed to include in previous prisoner swaps Kremlin insider Vladislav Klyushin, who was found guilty in February of insider trading and hacking, according to people familiar with the matter. He has information relating to the hacking of Democratic Party servers during the 2016 presidential election, they said.
Last year Russia and the US conducted two prisoner exchanges, including in December when they swapped WNBA star Brittney Griner for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout.
President Joe Biden spoke with Gershkovich’s family on April 11, assuring them that “the government is doing everything in its power to bring him home as quickly as possible,” the family said in a statement.
With the public focus on the case, the US now may have no choice but to negotiate, encouraging more such hostage-taking, said Polyakova.
“The Russians are getting far more aggressive and they’ve seen that when you take high-profile US citizens hostage, you get what you want,” she said.