Trade off

From PMCs to MC

For the first time since the end of the Cold War, An American journalist was detained in Russia on suspicion of espionage

For the first time in the history of modern Russia, a foreign journalist was arrested on suspicion of espionage. We are talking about the correspondent of the Moscow bureau of the American newspaper The Wall Street Journal, US citizen Evan Gershkovich. He has been remanded in custody until May 29 and will be held in the Lefortovo pre-trial detention centre. According to investigators, the American collected information about the activities of the Ural defense enterprises and was caught red-handed. Under Art. 276 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, he faces up to 20 years in prison. Evan Gershkovich’s colleagues insist that he was engaged in professional journalistic activities, and do not exclude that he was arrested for the sake of exchange. The US authorities called on all Americans to immediately leave Russia.

After the detention of Evan Gershkovich (pictured in the hood), the US authorities called on all Americans to immediately leave Russia

After the detention of Evan Gershkovich (pictured in the hood), the US authorities called on all Americans to immediately leave Russia

Photo: Dmitry Lebedev, Kommersant

First since 1986

The press service of the FSB on Thursday, March 30, announced the “suppression of the illegal activities of the correspondent of the Moscow bureau of the American newspaper The Wall Street Journal, US citizen Gershkovich Evan, born in 1991, suspected of espionage in the interests of the American government, accredited to the Russian Foreign Ministry.”

“It was established that Evan Gershkovich, 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. When trying to obtain secret information, a foreigner was detained in Yekaterinburg, “the department said in a statement.

Eyewitnesses told Kommersant that a man resembling Evan Gershkovich was taken out of the Bukowski Grill restaurant in the center of Yekaterinburg and placed in a minibus on Wednesday, March 29, at about 16 p.m. local time. The restaurant declined to comment.

The FSB Investigation Department opened a criminal case against Evan Gershkovich under Art. 276 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (espionage), which provides for a term of 10 to 20 years. The case has been classified as “top secret.” The journalist was transported to Moscow, where the Lefortovo District Court on March 30 elected him a measure of restraint in the form of detention until May 29, 2023. According to TASS, Evan Gershkovich will be held in the Lefortovo detention center. The lawyer under the agreement, Daniil Berman, told the agency that the defense would appeal the court decision and demand that the investigation familiarize him with the case materials.

Press Secretary of the President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Peskov said during a briefing that “we are not talking about suspicion,” but about the fact that the American “was detained red-handed.” The official representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, in turn, noted that “what an employee of the American edition of The Wall Street Journal was doing in Yekaterinburg has nothing to do with journalism.” “Unfortunately, this is not the first case when the status of a foreign correspondent, a journalist visa and accreditation are used by foreigners in our country to cover up activities that are not journalism. Not the first known Westerner is grabbed by the hand, “she wrote in her Telegram channel.

In the history of modern Russia, there have never been similar cases. The last time a foreign journalist was accused of espionage in the USSR: on August 30, 1986, kgb officers arrested the American correspondent of U.S. News & World Report, Nicholas Daniloff, in Moscow. The journalist pleaded not guilty. The administration of US President Ronald Reagan called his arrest revenge for the detention in New York of an employee of the USSR mission to the UN, Gennady Zakharov. He was also accused of espionage, at the trial he admitted his guilt. On September 23, 1986, Nicholas Daniloff and the founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Yuri Orlov, were released and expelled from the USSR in exchange for Gennady Zakharov.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday called on Americans living in or visiting Russia to “leave the country immediately.” According to him, the United States is “deeply concerned” in connection with the detention of Evan Gershkovich. Employees of the US Embassy in Russia appealed to the Russian side for consular access to the journalist (according to Maria Zakharova, it has already been provided). The State Department is in touch with his family and the newspaper. “The persecution of American citizens by the Russian government is unacceptable,” the US Foreign Ministry said.

The editorial board of The Wall Street Journal said it categorically denied the FSB version and demanded the immediate release of its employee. The publication described him as a “reliable and unbiased journalist.”

Evan Gershkovich was born in 1991 in New York. His parents emigrated from the USSR to the United States in 1979. He graduated from Princeton High School and Bowden College with a Bachelor of Arts degree. He studied philosophy and English. He worked for Agence France-Presse, The Moscow Times, The New York Times. His publications can also be found in The Economist, MIT Technology Review, Foreign Policy, Politico Europe. Since 2017, the journalist has lived and worked in Moscow. Since January 2022, he has worked for The Wall Street Journal. During his work in this publication, Evan Gershkovich published 114 materials – from lengthy reports and analytical articles written in co-authorship with colleagues to news notes. The last article of his authorship, devoted to the crisis of the Russian economy due to sanctions, The Wall Street Journal published on March 28.

“Observers behind him”

Vyacheslav Wegner, a deputy of the legislative assembly of the Sverdlovsk region, whom Evan Gershkovich interviewed during the trip, told TASS that the journalist was interested in local military enterprises.

He “began to ask questions related to the military-industrial complex of Yekaterinburg, called one of these enterprises, Novator, and so on,” said Vyacheslav Wegner. In addition, Evan Gershkovich, according to the agency, was interested in the communication of the deputy with the founder of the PMC “Wagner” Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Kommersant spoke with another person who spoke with Evan Gershkovich in Yekaterinburg, local social activist Yaroslav Shirshikov.

“I accompanied him for two days. The main task of his expedition was to study the attitude of different segments of society to the figure of Prigozhin. He wanted to know whether support for a special military operation in society is increasing or decreasing, “he told Kommersant.

Former Yekaterinburg journalist Dmitry Kolezev (included in the register of foreign agents), who now lives abroad, recalled that he communicated with Evan Gershkovich on the eve of a trip to the Urals. “He was preparing for ordinary, although quite dangerous in the current conditions, journalistic work. In particular, I was asked about the contacts of local journalists, the contacts of the leadership of the Yeltsin Center for interviews, the press secretary of the company “Sima-land”, known for its patriotic actions. He was interested in everything related to the Wagner PMC, so he was looking for the phones of local politicians and experts who could explain why the Sverdlovsk governor (Evgeny. – “Kommersant”) Kuyvashev so borzo responded to Prigozhin, “Dmitry Kolezev wrote in his Telegram channel, specifying that he did not know whether they managed to communicate.

According to him, the American journalist wanted to interview someone from the employees of defense enterprises about their attitude to the fighting in Ukraine.

“I warned Evan that he would be 100% monitored from the moment he arrived in Yekaterinburg, he understood this well, but I was sure that since he was not doing anything illegal, everything would be limited to ordinary surveillance and, perhaps, some intimidation. It turned out to be much worse, “Dmitry Kolezev wrote. In his opinion, the journalist was arrested for the sake of exchanging for one of the Russian citizens detained abroad.

Another Russian journalist, TV presenter and director Roman Super (recognized as a foreign agent), who also recently communicated with Evan Gershkovich, wrote in his Telegram channel: according to the American, “all the last years of work in Russia on every business trip he was accompanied by FSB officers.” “No one was hiding from anyone. It was commonplace: Gershkovich goes in a taxi to interview the hero – behind him is a car with observers; Gershkovich goes to a café , followed by a car with observers; Gershkovich goes to sleep in a hotel – there are observers behind him. This has long been the norm. The norm was also the fact that upon arrival in Russia, his phone was taken from him every time for verification, “the journalist said and also expressed confidence that Evan Gershkovich was arrested “for further bargaining.”

Lawyers of the human rights project “First Department” Yevgeny Smirnov and Ivan Pavlov (recognized as a foreign agent) also in comments to the media and in Telegram expressed confidence that the American was arrested for exchange for detained Russians.

Exchange candidates

“In the United States, there are a lot of Russians kidnapped and illegally exported from different countries,” human rights activist Ivan Melnikov, who specializes in the return of Russian citizens to their homeland, told Kommersant. – However, all of them are charged with cybercrime or financial scams. There is not a single Russian citizen suspected of espionage in the United States.” According to kommersant’s interlocutor, if the US authorities come up with an initiative to exchange Evan Gershkovich, the Russian side may demand the release of several Russian citizens at once, for example, Alexander Vinnik, Dmitry Ukrainsky, Roman Seleznev, Vladislav Klyushin.

At the same time, in recent months, the Western media have repeatedly reported on the exposure of “Russian spies” in different countries, in the identification of which American special services were also involved. It was about both individuals and groups of individuals.

So, a loud scandal broke out in late March, when the US authorities brought charges of working for the intelligence of the Russian Federation, visa, banking and electronic fraud to the Russian Sergey Cherkasov, who lived for many years under the name of Brazilian citizen Victor Muller Ferreira.

According to the US Department of Justice, the story of the “Russian operative” began more than ten years ago in Brazil. On a fake birth certificate, Sergey Cherkasov received a Brazilian passport, and in 2018 moved to the United States. There, as the newspaper The Guardian wrote, Victor Muller Ferreira graduated from a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and got the opportunity to undergo an internship at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. However, upon arrival in Amsterdam in April 2022, the man was detained and deported to Brazil. The Dutch authorities reported that the Dutch special services managed to prevent an attempt by the Russian Federation to “infiltrate a spy” into the ICC. At the same time, they noted that Ferreira-Cherkasov “used a well-developed cover, hiding any ties with Russia.” In Brazil, in July 2022, he was sentenced to 15 years on charges of falsely obtaining and using documents of this country.

Russia, by the way, recognized Victor Muller Ferreira as its citizen and demanded his extradition. Moscow assured that Sergei Cherkasov has nothing to do with intelligence, but is suspected in Russia of drug trafficking. The Russian Federation believes that Sergei Cherkasov, using Brazilian forged documents, tried to hide from Russian justice. The release of the charges by the US Department of Justice at the end of March is most likely nothing more than an attempt to prevent the extradition of Sergei Cherkasov to Russia, The Guardian noted.

In January, Slovenian media reported for the first time on the arrest of a married couple from Argentina, Maria Mayer and Ludwig Gisch, who settled in Ljubljana in 2017 with two young children.

Neighbors of the detainees said that Maria and Ludwig were “an ordinary pleasant family”, their children spoke only Spanish. In Slovenia, Maria Mayer opened an online art gallery, and Ludwig Gish ran an IT startup. After the couple’s detention, Slovenian Foreign Minister Tanja Faion announced that those arrested were citizens of the Russian Federation, not Argentina. The Slovenian police believe that Maria and Ludvig are “employees of the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation who used illegally obtained foreign documents to live and work in Slovenia and secretly collect information” (see “Kommersant” of March 28).

The stories of the Argentine couple and Sergey Cherkasov have become the loudest in recent times. In any case, in other situations, when people were detained in Western countries on suspicion of spying for Russia, it was not about “illegal immigrants”. Charges were brought either to citizens of the Russian Federation, or to local residents or foreigners recruited, according to certain special services, by Moscow. In particular, “Russian spies” have recently been arrested in Germany, Poland, Austria, Norway and other countries.

Press Secretary of the President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Peskov during the briefing was asked whether the detention of Evan Gershkovich could be a response to the arrest of Sergei Cherkasov and a reason for possible negotiations on the exchange of prisoners. Mr. Peskov replied: “I do not have such information, I have nothing to say on this topic.”

Advertising – continued below

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, in turn, told reporters that the question of the possibility of exchanging Evan Gershkovich is not worth it now.

“I would not raise a question in this plane now, because you understand that some exchanges that took place in the past, they occurred on people who have already served their sentences,” the diplomat reminded and added: “Let’s see how this plot develops further.”

Nikolay Yablonsky, Katerina Yakusheva, Maria Sharaeva, Yekaterinburg; Elena Chernenko, Aleksey Zabrodin, Vasiliy Kuznetsov, Nikolay Sergeev