The U.S. on Thursday expressed deep concern over Russia’s detention of an American journalist for The Wall Street Journal, issuing a condemnation of what it calls the Kremlin’s attempts to intimidate and stifle free speech.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken addressed in a statement the arrest of Evan Gershkovich, an American citizen and reporter for the Wall Street Journal. It was the first such detention of an American journalist over allegations of spying since the Cold War, according to the Journal.
“In the strongest possible terms, we condemn the Kremlin’s continued attempts to intimidate, repress, and punish journalists and civil society voices,” Blinken said.
Blinken did not confirm reports of Gershkovich’s detention specifically, which the newspaper has confirmed.
The White House also condemned the detention, saying in a statement that the administration had spoken to Gershkovich’s employer and his family.
“The targeting of American citizens by the Russian government is unacceptable. We condemn the detention of Mr. Gershkovich in the strongest terms,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement. “We also condemn the Russian government’s continued targeting and repression of journalists and freedom of the press.”
The U.S. had issued travel alerts earlier to warn American citizens over the risk of detention and arrest in Russia, given the rock-bottom relations between Washington and Moscow over Russia’s war against Ukraine.
White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told the reporters that the U.S. Embassy in Moscow has engaged the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and they are seeking consulate access to Gershkovich.
Gershkovich’s arrest was reported by the Wall Street Journal early Wednesday morning, citing a statement from Russia’s main security agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), that it had detained Gershkovich for espionage.
The FSB reportedly said Gershkovich was “acting on the instructions of the American side, collected information constituting a state secret about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex.”
Still, the FSB said that Gershkovich is accredited to work as a journalist in Russia by the country’s foreign ministry.
The Journal “vehemently” denied the allegations and called for the release of Gershkovich, who is reporting on Russia for the paper’s Moscow bureau.
“We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family,” the Journal said.
Gershkovich’s detention raises the possibility that Russia is seeking to pressure the U.S. with a political hostage, although Kirby told reporters that it was too early to tell the motivations on the arrest — and in particular if it was an act of retaliation.
In December, the U.S. released convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in an exchange for Brittney Griner, an American professional basketball player whose arrest was condemned by the U.S. as unjust.
The U.S. has also categorized as unjust the imprisonment of Paul Whelan, a former U.S. marine who was arrested and convicted on charges of espionage. Russia refused to release Whelan alongside Griner arguing the espionage charges made his release of a higher-value.
David Whelan, Paul’s brother, said in a statement that “our family is sorry to hear that another American family will have to experience the same trauma that we have had to endure for the past 1,553 days.”
President Biden and lawmakers have sought to find new ways of imposing costs on foreign governments’ unjust detaining of Americans abroad and expand resources dedicated to pushing for the release of Americans determined to be imprisoned as political hostages.
David Whelan, in his statement, said that despite these efforts, “We don’t have much to show for those good intentions.”
“Whatever it takes, I hope the U.S. government moves quickly and decisively so that Paul and Mr. Gershkovich are able to return to their families and loved ones soon. If these cases truly are the highest priority for the U.S. government, I’m confident that will happen,” David said in the statement.
Updated at 1:49 p.m.