By Andrew Osborn, Felix Light and Patricia Zengerle
LONDON/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A Moscow court ruled that a U.S. journalist for the Wall Street Journal should be detained for nearly two months on suspicion of spying, the most serious move against a foreign journalist since Russia invaded Ukraine and one quickly condemned by Washington.
Russia’s FSB security service said on Thursday it had opened a criminal case against U.S. national Evan Gershkovich on suspicion of espionage. The Kremlin said he had been “caught red-handed” but presented no documentary or video evidence.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration said it was deeply concerned and that officials had been in touch with Gershkovich’s employer and family. Journalist advocacy groups demanded Gershkovich’s release.
The case will worsen already dire relations between Moscow and Washington, both nuclear powers. The U.S. is Ukraine’s biggest military backer as Kyiv battles a Russian invasion and has imposed sanctions on Moscow to try to persuade it to end its invasion of Ukraine.
It is believed to be the first criminal case for espionage against a foreign journalist in post-Soviet Russia, a crime punishable by up to 20 years imprisonment.
The Biden administration strongly urged Americans to avoid travel to Russia and to leave if they were already there.
Gershkovich, 31, is the highest profile American arrested by Russia since basketball star Brittney Griner, who was caught arriving in Moscow with cannabis oil a week before the Ukraine invasion and freed in a prisoner swap 10 months later.
Analysts said Russia could be motivated by a desire for another swap or view the journalist as leverage in any negotiations involving Washington.
“They might be looking to trade him for somebody … or to keep him in reserve,” said Olga Oliker, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.
Kremlin watchers said Gershkovich’s case recalled that of U.S. journalist Nicholas Daniloff, who was detained and accused of spying by the Soviet Union in 1986 before being released and sent home without charge. Daniloff said he had been framed.
MESSAGE TO JOURNALISTS?
Experts said Gershkovich, who joined the Journal’s Moscow bureau in January 2022, might have been detained because of his reporting on politics, to send a message to journalists across Russia.
Yaroslav Shirshikov, a political expert in Yekaterinburg, told Reuters he was interviewed by Gershkovich two weeks ago and was due to meet him again on Thursday.
He said Gershkovich had asked about local attitudes towards the Wagner Group mercenary army, which is fighting in Ukraine, and told him he planned to travel to Nizhny Tagil, a city that is home to a big tank factory, to seek residents’ views on the Ukraine conflict.
Shirshikov said Gershkovich had not mentioned wanting information about a military factory and was not “an enemy of Russia.”
Maria Snegovaya, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Gershkovich’s detention underscored Russia’s growing disregard for sanctions or its international reputation.
“It may be a signal for foreign journalists to know their boundaries, and for Russian journalists as well,” she said.
She also noted that Gershkovich was working on a sensitive topic – the Wagner Group – at a time when Russia’s leaders are paying close attention to battlefield setbacks and the Russian public’s attitude toward the ongoing conflict.
Russia has tightened censorship laws since it sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine in February 2022, broadening the definition of what constitutes a state secret and setting prison terms for those deemed to have “discredited” the military.
“The problem is that recently updated Russian legislation and the FSB’s interpretation of espionage today allow for the imprisonment of anyone who is simply interested in military affairs,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a Kremlin watcher and founder of the R.Politik political analysis firm.
A swap for Gershkovich would be complicated by the continuing detention in a Russian penal colony of former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan on espionage charges that Washington also says are a sham.
The Biden administration faced criticism when Griner was freed because of Whelan’s continuing detention.
Prominent Russians currently imprisoned in the United States include Roman Seleznev, the son of a Russian lawmaker arrested for online credit card fraud, and wealthy businessman Vladislav Klyushin, convicted of hacking U.S. computer networks to get information for stock trades.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said it was too early to talk of a possible exchange.
(Reporting by Andrew Osborn and Felix Light; Additional reporting by Filipp Lebedev, Simon Lewis, Jonathan Landay and Doina Chiacu; Writing by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Mark Heinrich, Cynthia Osterman and Don Durfee)