WASHINGTON — Releasing an American imprisoned in Russia is a daunting challenge, but the espionage charge filed this week against a Wall Street Journal reporter will make it extremely difficult to secure his release.
Russian authorities have accused the reporter, Evan Gershkovich, of trying to obtain unauthorized information about the country’s “military-industrial complex”. In the Kremlin’s eyes, experts say, that puts him in a special category of prisoners — one very different from that of two Americans whom Russia has released since the war in Ukraine began.
Both Americans, the WNBA star Britney Griner and former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, were being held on standard offenses — Ms. Griner on drug charges, Mr. Reed on charges of assaulting police officers — when the Biden administration negotiated their release and exchanged them for Russians on criminal charges. serving sentences of their own in US prisons.
“Let him go,” President Biden told reporters on Friday when asked what his message about Mr. Gershkovich was for the Kremlin.
But the allegations against Mr. Gershkovichwhich he denied in a lawsuit Thursday and which his employer firmly rejects could indicate a higher asking price from the Kremlin than in those earlier cases.
That is the lesson so far in the case of yet another American accused of espionage and imprisoned by Russia, Paul Whelan. The company security manager and former marine was arrested in December 2018 at a Moscow hotel, charged with espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison. Mr Whelan has denied the allegations against him and US officials insist he did not commit espionage – a claim supported by intelligence experts who do not find the idea credible.
Those familiar with Mr Whelan’s case say Russia has pushed for what would amount to fair dealing if the charges against him were legitimate – in other words, a spy for a spy. Russian officials “continue to push for false charges of espionage,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said in December, “and are handling Paul’s case differently.”
That helps explain why Mr. Whelan spent months in a gloomy Russian prison months after Mr. Reed and Mrs. Griner returned home. The United States is not known to be detaining a Russian spy, and even if it did, the Biden administration would be reluctant to commit an alleged spy trade that lent credence to false allegations of espionage by the Kremlin.
US officials say Russia has demanded to trade Mr Whelan for Vadim Krasikov, a Russian assassin serving a life sentence in Germany for the murder of a Chechen fighter in a Berlin park. The United States says it cannot make a deal with a prisoner held in Germany.
Clear signs have already emerged that the Kremlin was motivated by a possible spy swap. Pro-Russian commentators almost immediately began to speculate about the possibility, even as they argued that Mr Gershkovich should be tried and convicted first.
A commentator, Igor Korotchenko, said on a state television talk show Thursday that the Biden administration should “accept the situation” and “think about possible transactions that may take place after this US citizen has served his sentence.”
Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA agent stationed in Moscow for five years, called the arrest a cynical ploy by Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin.
“Putin is essentially holding US citizens hostage because he wants to use them as leverage,” Hoffman said. “The charges he brings will only reflect how he sees the endgame. So if he files espionage charges, he’ll want to get one of his own spies back.’
Mr Hoffman said Mr Putin could seek the release of Sergey Cherkasov, a man US officials say is a Russian undercover agent who posed as a Brazilian student to study in the United States before getting a job at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Mr. Cherkasov was deported from the Netherlands to Brazil last April, where he was arrested, prosecuted and sentenced to 15 years in prison. But it was only last week that the The US Department of Justice has charged Mr. Cherkasov as a Russian intelligence agent, making Mr. Hoffman and others thought that Mr. Putin may have been motivated to respond.
Several accused Russian agents have been arrested by Western countries in recent months, including in mid-March, six people were detained by Polish authorities and accused of planning sabotage operations, and a couple sentenced to prison by a Swedish court in January for ten years of spying for Moscow. But US officials have said that, as in Mr. Krasikov’s case, they cannot instruct allies to release prisoners for America’s benefit.
For the Kremlin, Mr. Gershkovich’s arrest serves other purposes. It is also an opportunity to show Russia’s readiness to take increasingly drastic steps in confronting what Putin often calls “Western hegemony.”
At the same time, the Kremlin’s propaganda machine has used the case to spread its narrative of Western subversion. An evening newscast on state television called Mr. Gershkovich “the wolf of Wall Street” and claimed that he had spread “anti-Russian, pro-Ukrainian propaganda” in his articles.
Just days before Mr. Gershkovich’s arrest, he wrote an article on the toll that Western sanctions against Russia are beginning to take on the country’s economy.
“This is a dark day for journalism and information about what is happening in Russia,” said Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council official for Russia affairs in the Trump White House.
Mr Gershkovich could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted. Acquittals in espionage cases in Russia are virtually unheard of.
If recent precedent is any guide, he will likely spend more than a year in a high-security prison in near-total isolation awaiting the end of a lengthy investigation and trial, according to two Russian lawyers who have worked on similar cases.
A Moscow court ruled on Thursday that Gershkovich should be jailed until May 29. But according to Ivan Pavlov, a Russian lawyer who has defended Russian clients in espionage and treason cases, the process could take up to two years.
During that time, details of the case will most likely remain hidden from the public, he said.
Russian state media reported that after being detained in Yekaterinburg, a city in the Ural Mountains, Mr. Gershkovich was transferred to Moscow’s infamous Lefortovo Prison, once used by the KGB to hold Soviet dissidents.
Mrs Griner does released December in a trade for notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was serving a US federal prison sentence for aiding terrorists. Mr Reed was trafficked last April for a Russian pilot convicted of drug smuggling. US officials have reported no recent progress in their efforts to free Mr. Whelan.
On Thursday, a Russian deputy foreign minister, Sergei A. Ryabkov, said it was too early to discuss a trade for Mr Gershkovich. According to the Russian news agency Interfax, he noted that recent exchanges had only taken place after the suspect was convicted.