To free American journalist jailed in Russia, US faces uphill battle, experts say

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(NEW YORK) — The United States will face an uphill battle in any efforts it takes to free detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich — who has been imprisoned in Russia for over a week — because of the seriousness of the espionage charges against him and the fact that Moscow shows no sign of backing down, experts told ABC News..

Despite the fact that senior members of the Biden administration have repeatedly said the charges against Gershkovich — are unequivocally false, Russia views the allegations as more serious than other cases in which they’ve made prisoner swaps.

While the relationship between the U.S. and Russia has plummeted to a near all-time low in recent years, hostage diplomacy has been a rare area of cooperation between the powers. In 2022, the administration was able to secure the release of two Americans from Russia via prisoner swaps—WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was jailed for nearly 10 months after being detained on drug charges, and Trevor Reed, who was imprisoned for almost three years for allegedly assaulting a police officer.

In a statement released Thursday, Moscow’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Gershkovich was “detained red-handed while trying to obtain classified information, using his journalistic status as a cover for illegal actions qualified as espionage” and attempts by the U.S. to pressure Russian authorities to release him were “futile and meaningless.”

Interfax, a Russian news agency, reported on Friday that Russian investigators had formally charged Gershkovich with espionage, and that his lawyers filed for an appeal, which is scheduled to be heard in a Moscow court in mid-April.

Gershkovich’s lawyers and the Wall Street Journal have also denied the accusations against the reporter.

“The legal avenue is one of several avenues we are working to advocate for Evan’s release. We continue to work with the White House, State Department and relevant U.S. government officials to secure Evan’s release,” the Wall Street Journal’s editor-in-chief Emma Tucker said in a letter to her newsroom on Tuesday.

But John Woodward, a former CIA officer and international relations professor at Boston University, predicts there’s a long road ahead for Gershkovich.

“I would not want to be Evan at the moment,” he said.

He suggested that if a prisoner swap were to be arranged, Russian President Vladimir Putin would want a “spy for a spy,” referencing Russia’s deep loyalty “to individuals who have committed espionage on their behalf.”

But that requirement is likely to complicate any deal with the U.S., as illustrated by the so-far futile efforts to free Paul Whelan, an American arrested in 2018 while visiting Moscow. He was convicted on espionage charges, which the U.S. vehemently denies, and sentenced to 16 years in a maximum-security prison colony.

Whelan was left out of the prisoner exchange that freed Griner. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last month that the U.S. had put forth a new proposal to free Whelan months ago, but so far Russia has not publicly shown any interest in accepting.

While the details of Blinken’s offer are unknown, Sergey Cherkasov, a Russian national accused by the Department of Justice of operating as an illegal agent for the country’s intelligence service, could be more enticing to Moscow according to experts.

Danielle Gilbert, a foreign policy fellow at Dartmouth College who specializes in hostage diplomacy, said the timing of Gershkovich’s arrest—just days after Cherkasov was charged by the U.S. in late March–is very “suspicious,” and that the reporter’s arrest could have been a retaliatory act by Moscow.

The Russian government has denied that Cherkasov is a spy, and he has not yet appeared in court to address the allegations made by American investigators.

However, the Department of Justice claimed in a statement that the evidence in the case shows that Cherkasov spent years illegally gathering information about American entities and passing it along to his handlers in Russia’s intelligence community, undermining U.S. national security.

Cherkasov is currently incarcerated in Brazil on fraud charges. The Brazilian and the U.S. legal systems, as well as a possible extradition, could slow any movement, according to sources familiar with standard practices related to prisoner exchanges.

Gilbert said Russia has also expressed interest in a deal that would secure the release of Russian citizen Vadim Krasikov, a convicted assassin serving a life sentence in Germany since 2019.

“It is not unheard of for other countries to get involved,” she said.

However, drawing a third country in to such an exchange could establish a dangerous precedent for the U.S., according to administration officials, who have also expressed doubt over Russia’s interest in Krasikov is genuine or another negotiating tactic.

Beyond the spying allegations and lack of trade options, Woodward said he believes Gershkovich’s prior reporting on Putin could work against him, delaying negotiations.

Woodward believes that Gershkovich’s “strong Russian background, linguistically and culturally” alongside his “hard-hitting reporting” on Russia definitely factored into the arrest.

“There’s a strong retaliatory aspect to this,” Woodward said. “I’m sure [Gershkovich] developed some good information and leads.”

So far, administration officials have declined to speculate on what exactly prompted Russian authorities to arrest Gershkovich, saying it is too soon to make an assessment.

Efforts to free Gershkovich are still in a nascent phase. The Biden administration has not yet formally classified the reporter as wrongfully detained, a designation that would transfer his case to the Office of the Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs—effectively, the U.S.’ chief hostage negotiator.

“In Evan’s case, we are working through the determination on wrongful detention, and there’s a process to do that, and it is something that we are working through very deliberately but expeditiously as well,” Blinken said during a press briefing on Wednesday. “And I’ll let that process play out. In my own mind, there’s no doubt that he’s being wrongfully detained by Russia.”

National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby did not say whether the U.S. would consider a prisoner swap for Gershkovich on Thursday.

“We’re doing what we can to keep his employer and family informed. Our focus is squarely on that right now,” he said.

American diplomats in Moscow are also still working to gain access to Gershkovich, but have made little progress despite interventions from the Blinken and the U.S. ambassador to Moscow on his behalf, a senior State Department official told ABC News.

ABC’s Cindy Smith, Ellie Kaufman, and Tanya Stukalova contributed to this report.

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