Why was Evan Gershkovich targeted?

Experts say Evan Gershkovich may face harsh treatment in Russian custody.

April 14, 2023, 1:35 PM

Although the United States has repeatedly declared that the espionage charges levied against imprisoned American reporter Evan Gershkovich are baseless, the path of securing the journalist's release will be marked by symbolism about broader press freedoms -- and may be part of why he was targeted, experts tell ABC News.

While Russia has historically leaned on American prisoners as bargaining chips in exchange for prisoner swaps, the decision to bring a journalist into custody on charges widely denounced as unfounded may be an attempt to crack down on press freedoms, according to retired Col. Steve Ganyard, a former deputy assistant secretary of state and an ABC News contributor, and William Pomeranz, an expert on Russian law and the director of the Wilson Center Kennan Institute.

Although the Kremlin has denied Russian President Vladimir Putin's direct involvement in the arrest, Ganyard says that's likely not the case.

"Putin knew that once this journalist was seized that it would immediately get raised to the highest levels of the U.S. government. So that was probably the intent," he said. "So this is quite deliberate."

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a cabinet meeting via videoconference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, March 29, 2023.
Gavriil Grigorov/AP, FILE

Pomeranz also says Putin is counting on the arrest of Gershkovich -- who has pleaded not guilty -- having a chilling effect across the country's limited free press and even beyond.

"This is just another nail in the coffin of any sort of independent journalism in the Russian Federation," he said. "It's a warning to Western journalists. It's a warning to Russian journalists. It's a part of a concerted effort to crack down on all civil society in Russia."

Gershkovich's parents told the Wall Street Journal in an interview released on Friday -- their first since their son's arrest -- that an in-depth report on Putin he published late last year stoked their concern.

"I think when that article came out about Putin, in December, it got me worried a lot. My mood was changing," his mother, Ella Gershkovich said.

"I trusted his judgement. Of course, it makes things more difficult for me now. Because I feel that I failed some way, as a father," said Mikhail Gershkovich.

The 31-year-old reporter was granted permission to work in Russia by its government and had been a part of the Wall Street Journal's Moscow bureau for over a year before he was arrested on espionage charges during a reporting trip. Authorities have yet to share any evidence to support their claims, and the U.S. flatly denies the allegations.

The accusations Gershkovich faces mean he will likely face harsher treatment than Brittney Griner and Trevor Reed -- Americans who were convicted of different crimes in Russian courts but ultimately freed in prisoner swaps.

Pomeranz says those differences will be evident long before a verdict is handed down.

"Espionage cases are not public. They are behind closed doors. So there won't be any following of the case, such as the Griner case, which was at least mostly open. But the outcome will be the same. He will get convicted," he said, adding that Gershkovich will probably receive a sentence of 20 years in prison, the steepest punishment possible.

More than two weeks after his arrest, U.S. diplomats stationed at the embassy in Moscow have not yet been able to see Gershkovich in person. Moscow commonly blocks access to American prisoners, but during open hearings, American officials are often able to at least speak with the defendant on the sidelines of the courtroom.

For Gershkovich, that won't be the case.

"It will be very difficult for the embassy to even talk to Evan before the trial," Pomeranz said. "One of the goals of the Russian judicial system is to isolate the defendant as much as possible because that will obviously undermine the defendant's spirits. He's going to have no physical contact with any Americans."

This file photo taken on July 24, 2021 shows journalist Evan Gershkovich.
Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

As it did in Griner's case, Moscow is signaling that Gershkovich's case must wind its way through Russia's legal system before it would even consider a prisoner exchange -- a process that could take months.

"The issue of exchanging anyone can be considered after the court issues its verdict," Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Thursday.

While top officials in the Biden administration have pledged to bring Gershkovich home, Ganyard says that when the day comes that Russia is willing to negotiate an exchange, the U.S. might not have an enticing offer for Moscow.

"During the Cold War, when the Russians were more active and had better success in penetrating not only U.S. but European governments, there were quite regular spy swaps," Ganyard said. "But now the Russians have had less success, at least that we know, in penetrating the U.S. government and so there are fewer Russian spies being held."

Ganyard also points to the other case of an American considered to be wrongfully detained in Russia of how difficult it can be to free a citizen accused of spying in the present era. Paul Whelan, now 53, was convicted of espionage in 2020 on charges the U.S. calls trumped up, and has already been detained in Russia for over four years.

"When the U.S. was trying to get Brittney Griner back, they wanted a package deal -- They wanted Paul Whelan included. But the Russians were very clear," Ganyard said. "They said 'No, he is a spy. And we only trade spies for spies.'"

On Monday, the U.S. announced that it was classifying Gershkovich as "wrongfully detained," a designation that will unlock certain courses of action for the State Department in the hopes of bringing him home. Gershkovich is now the second American considered to be wrongfully detained by Russia behind Whelan, who has been imprisoned since 2018.