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Russia detains a 'Wall Street Journal' reporter on claims of spying

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

We are following another low point for U.S.-Russia relations in this moment. Russia has jailed an American reporter for The Wall Street Journal on charges of espionage, and the U.S. is demanding consular access and answers. We're joined now by NPR's Michele Kelemen to learn more about this case. First, Michele, just what can you tell us about this arrest?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Yeah. So Evan Gershkovich was arrested in Yekaterinburg. It's an industrial city in the Urals. The Russians say he was caught red-handed trying to gather information about a company in the military industrial complex. He was reportedly working on stories about a tank factory in the area and a Russian mercenary group. The Wall Street Journal vehemently denies he was involved in espionage. And White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre says President Biden has been briefed on the case, which she described this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: These espionage charges are ridiculous. The targeting of American citizens by Russian government is unacceptable. We condemn the detention of Mr. Gershkovich in the strongest terms.

KELEMEN: And that was repeated at the State Department, which says it's trying to get consular access to him.

SUMMERS: Michele, what else do we know about this reporter and his recent work?

KELEMEN: So he's 31 years old. He joined The Wall Street Journal last year. But he's been in Moscow since 2017, working first for the Moscow Times, an English-language paper, and then the AFP, the French news agency. And just this week, he co-authored a piece about how sanctions are really starting to have an impact in Russia. It was called how "Russia's Economy Is Starting To Come Undone."

SUMMERS: So it sounds like even though the Russians accuse him of espionage, they might also be unhappy with his reporting. Michele, what appears to be the Russian play here?

KELEMEN: It's really hard to know this early. I mean, maybe they're looking for a prisoner swap. The U.S. traded a Russian arms dealer for American basketball star Brittney Griner last year. The U.S. is still trying to get Paul Whelan out of Russia. And a U.S. court recently indicted a suspected Russian spy. So, you know, maybe Russia is looking for a new prisoner swap or it might just be sending a signal to journalists. I talked about this today with Olga Oliker. She's an analyst with the International Crisis Group, and here's what she had to say.

OLGA OLIKER: It is a terrifying signal on press freedom, on the ability for journalists to work in Russia, whether they are Russian or Western, and certainly willingness to continue to pick fights with Western countries.

KELEMEN: You know, Juana, Russia's war in Ukraine is not going well. Russia blames the West for arming Ukraine with increasingly sophisticated weapons. And while Russia is clearly unhappy with that, Oliker says the Kremlin is also settling in for a long war, and it sees some domestic benefits from this.

OLIKER: It justifies the crackdowns and the limitations on free speech and all of these things that were certainly in the works before the full-scale invasion but which have accelerated, and I really would say transformed Russia, over the course of the last year.

KELEMEN: Last year, Russia put in place some draconian measures to limit reporters for what they could say about the war, but this espionage case is really taking it to a new level.

SUMMERS: In the few seconds we have left, is the State Department telling journalists in Russia to leave?

KELEMEN: Well, it's telling all Americans living or traveling to Russia to leave. But the White House was careful not to give any specific guidance to journalists, saying they know they need to do a job.

SUMMERS: NPR's Michele Kelemen. Thank you.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.