From Russia, No Love For Journalists
Ukraine War Ups The Ante On Arrest Of Wall Street Journal Reporter
The 1980s are calling. They want their John LeCarre spy novel plot lines back.
According to Russia’s Federal Security Service, Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich is a spy.
Evan Gershkovich was detained in the city of Yekaterinburg while allegedly trying to obtain classified information, the Federal Security Service, known by the acronym FSB, said Thursday.
The official stance of the Kremlin is that Gershkovich was “caught red handed” with classified materials.
"This is the prerogative of the FSB ... there was already a statement from the Federal Security Service, we have nothing to add here. The only thing I can say is that, as far as we know, he was caught red-handed," Peskov said in response to a question whether Moscow would cooperate with American intelligence agencies in this case.
The cynic in me can’t help but thinking that John LeCarre did this story line better in The Russia House.
According to Russian media, Gershkovich, while in the city of Yekaterinburg, collected information regarding one of the companies in Russia’s military-industrial complex.
Earlier , the FSB of the Russian Federation reported that Evan Gershkovich, a correspondent for the Moscow bureau of the American newspaper Wall Street Journal, was detained in Yekaterinburg on suspicion of espionage. According to the FSB, on instructions from the United States , Gershkovich collected information constituting a state secret "about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex."
It bears mentioning that the arrest comes just days after Gershkovich filed his most recent story for the WSJ, detailing the decline of the Russian economy. Gathering data on companies is certainly one very legitimate way to delve deeper into the substance of the Russian economic decline, even if the Kremlin is discomfited by such exploration.
Meanwhile, Russia has stated that the Wall Street Journal’s Moscow office should be able to continue covering stories in Russia—so long as they stick to “normal journalistic activities”.
Employees of the Moscow bureau of the Wall Street Journal will continue to work if they have a valid accreditation and they carry out normal journalistic activities, said Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov.Gershkovich is the first American reporter to be arrested on espionage charges in Russia since September 1986, when Nicholas Daniloff, a Moscow correspondent for U.S. News and World Report, was arrested by the KGB. Daniloff was released without charge 20 days later in a swap for an employee of the Soviet Union’s United Nations mission who was arrested by the FBI, also on spying charges.
"Those who carry out normal journalistic activities, of course, if they have valid accreditation, they will continue to work," Peskov told reporters.
The Wall Street Journal is quite free to continue reporting all the narratives and story lines that the Kremlin wants to see, provided they don’t report on any narrative or story line the Kremlin doesn’t want to see. That’s what passes for “normal journalistic activities” in the former Soviet Union (again, LeCarre did this so much better than Dmitry Peskov).
Meanwhile, the diplomatic Kabuki theater is moving along historical lines.
The Russian Foreign Ministry is reporting that that Gershkovich has been given consular access. The US State Department and even the White House are both aware (at least, Dementia Joe’s handlers are aware) and presumably engaged in the process of extricating Gershkovich from the FSB’s tender mercies.
For its part, the US State Department has urged all Americans traveling or living in Russia to leave immediately.
The Department of State’s highest priority is the safety and security of U.S. citizens abroad. We reiterate our strong warnings about the danger posed to U.S. citizens inside the Russian Federation. U.S. citizens residing or traveling in Russia should depart immediately, as stated in our Travel Advisory for Russia.
Gershkovich’s arrest is the first time an American journalist has been arrested for espionage in Russia since 1986, thus making it impossible not to view the arrest through the lens of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Gershkovich is the first American reporter to be arrested on espionage charges in Russia since September 1986, when Nicholas Daniloff, a Moscow correspondent for U.S. News and World Report, was arrested by the KGB. Daniloff was released without charge 20 days later in a swap for an employee of the Soviet Union’s United Nations mission who was arrested by the FBI, also on spying charges.
Was the arrest influenced by the Kremlin’s desire to throw some shade on the United States, and raise the stakes somewhat for the US’ continued backing of Ukraine? Is the Kremlin concerned that Gershkovich might reveal that Russia’s economic infrastructure is not up to the task of supplying the front line troops in Ukraine (which, just by cursory examination of Rosstat’s own economic data, it’s not)?
At the same time, it must also be noted that White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre bobbed and weaved on a question of whether Gershkovich had ever worked for the US Government.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre avoided definitively saying whether Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was detained in Russia, had ever worked for the U.S. government.
Jean-Pierre faced a number of questions on the topic at Thursday's White House press briefing, and when asked by a reporter if she "can say declaratively that Gershkovich never worked for and does not work for the United States government," she pointed back to her previous comments.
"I just said the charge of espionage is ridiculous. That is not accurate, and we find that incredibly ridiculous," Jean-Pierre responded. "We're going to be very clear about that. This is something that Russia has done all the time, many times before."
"What I can say is the charges against him are ridiculous. We have been very clear about that. I'm not going to get into more specifics," she said when pressed by the reporter that she had avoided the question. "I was very clear in my statement, that those are ridiculous and they're not accurate, and right now, we're going to do everything that we can to get more details on the circumstances. And that's what we're going to be at this time."
This, of course, is the classic “non-denial denial” that strives to present the appearance of refuting something without actually refuting it. We thus do not know, at least from the White House press briefing, if Gershkovich has ever had any ties to the US government.
That being said, while on the one hand Gershkovich is a reporter with numerous bylines to his credit, with the most recent being on the state of the Russian economy and the impact of EU/NATO sanctions, on the other hand making even journalistic inquiry of a company involved in producing military hardware or supplies during wartime is always going to raise eyebrows in certain circles. Gershkovich might just simply have been careless.
That the US government has voiced support for Ukraine against Russia and is going to great lengths to arm the Ukrainians to fight back against the Russia invasion only makes the circumstances that much more problematic.
Even in LeCarre’s The Russia House, the principal characters were ultimately involved in espionage. We should not dismiss the possibility that Gershkovich may very well be a spy.
Will this play out in the same fashion such “arrests” did during the Cold War, ultimately ending in an exchange of prisoners? Or will the Kremlin view this situation as being a good deal more provocative due to the backdrop of the war in Ukraine and push forward with trial and lengthy incarceration for Gershkovich?
If the Kremlin does opt for the latter approach, will the US view this as an escalation by Russia, bringing the US and Russia that much closer to an actual shooting war?
Only time will provide the answers to these questions. In the meantime, we are left with a situation that increases the tension between Russia and the US. Regardless of whether Gershkovich is a spy or just a reporter who asked the wrong question in the wrong place at the wrong time, Russia opted to raise the ante with the US by detaining him.
What is certain is that the prospects for eventual peace in Ukraine are not being advanced by Gershkovich’s arrest, nor will they be advanced by his eventual trial, conviction, and incarceration for espionage.
The times are getting ever more interesting.
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