The United States Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has called on Russia to release Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in a phone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The call was made on Sunday, following Gershkovich’s arrest by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) on Thursday. The FSB accused Gershkovich of gathering information about a Russian defence company that was a state secret, but the Wall Street Journal has denied that he was spying. The White House has described the espionage charge as “ridiculous”.
In a statement, the US Department of State said that Blinken had conveyed the United States’ “grave concern” over Russia’s detention of a US citizen journalist and called for his immediate release. However, the statement did not mention Gershkovich by name, as under US law, the State Department is generally prohibited from speaking about a US citizen unless he or she has signed a privacy waiver. A US official, speaking anonymously to Reuters news agency, confirmed that the statement referred to Gershkovich.
Russia’s foreign ministry responded by saying that Lavrov had told Blinken it was unacceptable for Washington to politicise the case and that Gershkovich’s fate would be determined by a court. The ministry reiterated Russia’s assertion that the journalist was “caught red-handed” last week, but it has not presented any evidence to support this claim. The ministry also criticised officials in Washington and the Western media for “whipping up a stir” with the intention of giving the case a political colouring.
Direct conversations between Blinken and Lavrov have been rare since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The two spoke face to face for the first time since the invasion on the sidelines of a wider meeting in New Delhi on March 2. Wall Street Journal Editor-in-Chief Emma Tucker has condemned Gershkovich’s arrest and the Russian accusations against him, but said she was reassured that Blinken and Lavrov had spoken.
At a closed hearing on Thursday, Gershkovich was placed in pre-trial detention until May 29 at Moscow’s Lefortovo prison. Many Western and some Russian analysts have suggested that the arrest was a move by Moscow to secure a bargaining chip with Washington, four months after a high-profile prisoner swap where it traded US basketball star Brittney Griner for convicted Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout. Griner has urged the Biden administration to use “every tool possible” to free Gershkovich.