Russia's detention of US citizen and Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich has prompted a very rare phone call between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Given that Gershkovich is facing spying accusations, this makes the case significantly bigger and higher stakes than the prior long-running Britney Griner imprisonment and prisoner swap saga. Any espionage-related conviction would likely bring a prison sentence of at least 20 years, or possibly even life in prison, for the 31-year old journalist.
"Secretary Blinken conveyed the United States’ grave concern over Russia’s unacceptable detention of a U.S. citizen journalist," an official US readout of the Sunday call states. "The Secretary called for his immediate release."
The FSB security service had described that Gershkovich was caught 'illegally' gathering "classified" information on a sensitive government-linked defense company. The White House slammed the accusation and detention as "ridiculous".
Blinken had also used the opportunity of the phone call to once again demand the release of former Marine Paul Whelan. Controversially, he had been left out of the Griner and Viktor Bout prisoner swap (Bout has been dubbed the "merchant of death" given he was a global arms trafficker), which aroused considerable public anger directed at the Biden administration in the US.
As for Lavrov, he alleged the US is seeking to politicize the case of the Wall Street Journal reporter. According to statements from the Kremlin side:
"Blinken's attention was drawn to the need to respect the decisions of the Russian authorities, taken in accordance with the law and international obligations of the Russian Federation," the Russian foreign ministry said.
"It was emphasized that it is unacceptable for officials in Washington and the Western media to whip up a stir with the clear intention of giving this case a political coloring," the ministry added, saying Blinken initiated the conversation.
In the wake of the arrest, the US State Department and its embassies abroad urged all American citizens to not travel to Russia for any reason.
.@emmatuckerWSJ on a timeline for establishing communication with detained reporter Evan Gershkovich: “We are hopeful that a lawyer will get to see him next week…I'm optimistic that we'll be able to make some sort of contact with him next week. But who knows.” pic.twitter.com/ICV1buJbRX— Face The Nation (@FaceTheNation) April 2, 2023
The Russian government has been accused - particularly since the start of the Ukraine invasion in February 2022 - of detaining Americans in order to use them as bargaining chips to get major concessions from the US and Europe, and to gain the release of detained Russians held in the West.
Gershkovich is currently in pre-trial detention at Moscow's Lefortovo prison. Wall Street Journal Editor-in-Chief Emma Tucker has decried the "complete outrage" of his arrest, calling the accusations of spying "utter nonsense".