Russian authorities’ decision to arrest Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Hershkovich on espionage charges was the subject of intense scrutiny on Friday, with speculation swirling about why the Kremlin decided to take a move that was not only provocative but unprecedented in post-Soviet Russia.
As the dust settled over Gershkovich’s arrest on Thursday in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg, it appeared that the event would be a major milestone in the worsening of already dire relations between Moscow and Western capitals.
Few people seem to accept at face value the accusations of espionage against a reporter who has lived in Russia for 6 years and has repeatedly received official accreditation from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
While some believe the Kremlin is eyeing an upcoming prisoner exchange with the United States, others believe Hershkovitch’s arrest could be aimed at intimidating foreign reporters, a way to settle the bill for restrictions on Russian journalists in the United States, or simply a deliberate attempt to antagonize Washington.
One way or another, it became more and more obvious that the order to arrest Hershkovich came from the highest level in Moscow.
A senior Russian government official who used to work in the intelligence services told The Moscow Times that military counterintelligence officers from the State Security Service (FSB) flew from Moscow to Yekaterinburg to detain Hershkovich.
“This is a high-profile case, which is why it was handled by the FSB military counterintelligence department. “Moscow operatives have much more experience in such cases than their regional counterparts,” the official said.
A current Kremlin official confirmed to The Moscow Times that the FSB military counterintelligence department is handling the case.
The news of the arrest was quickly met with statements from high-ranking Russian officials who claimed Hershkovich’s guilt.
President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that Hershkovich was caught “red-handed,” while Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said his activities in Yekaterinburg had “nothing to do with journalism.”
Some even drew attention to the van in which Hershkovich was brought to the courtroom in Moscow, as evidence of the “showiness” of the case.
“Look at the van [Russian] the tricolor is not a coincidence or an accident, but a deliberate choice by the FSB,” a Kremlin official told The Moscow Times.
Some quickly concluded that the Kremlin had ordered Hershkovich’s detention in order to exchange him for Russians held in Western prisons.
“Looks like they’ve taken hostages,” tweeted Analytical firm R.Politik, which is managed by the Russian political scientist Tatyana Stanova, shortly after the information about Hershkovich’s detention appeared.
Speculation about those the Kremlin may be seeking to free from Western prisons has centered on Maria Mayer and Ludwig Giesz, alleged Russian secret spies arrested in Slovenia in December, and Sergei Cherkasov, an alleged Russian agent is charged earlier this month in the United States.
This will not be the first time that high-profile arrests of foreigners in Russia are aimed at increasing the influence of the Kremlin.
Last year in Washington released the well-known Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was serving a prison sentence in the United States, in exchange for American basketball star Brittney Griner, who was convicted in Russia for drugs.
“I think that’s the answer to [arrest of the] couple in Slovenia,” a former high-ranking Kremlin official told The Moscow Times when asked about Hershkovich.
Others have suggested that Hershkovich’s arrest may have been a signal from the Kremlin to foreign reporters in Russia, who — unlike their independent Russian counterparts — have been largely allowed to work freely since the war began.
There has also been speculation that it could be the Kremlin’s response to what it sees as restrictions on Russian reporters working in Western countries, or even increased US military support for Ukraine.
“It’s a ‘nothing for your guys to do here’ kind of message,” another Kremlin official told The Moscow Times on Friday.
The last known case of a foreign reporter being charged with espionage in Russia was in 1986, when American reporter Nicholas Daniloff was convicted arrested by the Soviet government in retaliation for the arrest of a Soviet spy in the United States. A few weeks later he was allowed to leave the Soviet Union.
While there is no plan for a possible exchange between the US and Russia, previous such exchanges have occurred only after a prisoner in Russia has been formally sentenced, a process that can take months or even years.
Few doubt that Hershkovich’s arrest could be another blow to relations between Washington and Moscow.
“This, undoubtedly, brings the relations between Russia and the USA to a new level of confrontation,” tweeted analyst Stanova R. Polityk.
US officials immediately condemned the Kremlin for the incident.
US President Joe Biden answered the question about Hershkovich’s arrest on Friday said: “Let it go. There is a process.”
And, in an editorialThe WSJ said the arrest of its journalist means the US needs to take a tougher stance on Russia.
“The Biden administration will need to consider diplomatic and political escalation,” the WSJ said. “The expulsion of the Russian ambassador to the United States, as well as all Russian journalists working here, is the minimum expected.”
Peskov said on Friday that “there is no reason” to deport all Russian journalists working in the United States, Interfax reports. informed.
Among Russian officials who spoke to The Moscow Times — all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely — there was little desire for compromise.
“Let everyone go home. And our people there [in the U.S.] will also leave,” said one high-ranking government official.
“We are much closer to war, so we must reduce the number of contacts.”