The Russian authorities said on Thursday that they had detained an American journalist for The Wall Street Journal and accused him of espionage, marking a new escalation in Moscow’s tensions with the United States and with foreign media organizations since the start of its invasion of Ukraine.
The journalist, Evan Gershkovich, a correspondent based in Moscow, is believed to be the first American reporter to be held as an accused spy in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. His detention comes as relations between Russia and the United States continue to deteriorate, with Washington leading a coalition of nations supporting Ukraine’s military defense and pushing for Moscow’s further diplomatic and economic isolation.
The Russian Federal Security Service, or F.S.B., said in a statement that Mr. Gershkovich “is suspected of spying in the interests of the American government” and had been detained in Yekaterinburg, a city about 900 miles east of Moscow in the Ural Mountains. The F.S.B. is a successor agency to the Soviet-era K.G.B.
“It was established that E. Gershkovich, acting on the instructions of the American side, collected information constituting a state secret about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex,” the F.S.B. said. Hours after the F.S.B.’s announcement, the Kremlin endorsed Mr. Gershkovich’s arrest.
“We’re not talking about suspicions,” Dmitri S. Peskov, spokesman for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, said in a daily conference call with journalists, adding, “He was caught red-handed.” Mr. Peskov said he could not provide further details.
In a statement, The Wall Street Journal strongly rejected Russia’s accusations and said that it was concerned for Mr. Gershkovich’s safety.
“The Wall Street Journal vehemently denies the allegations from the F.S.B. and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter, Evan Gershkovich,” it said. “We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family.”
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow did not immediately comment on the arrest.
Mr. Gershkovich faces up to 20 years in prison under Russia’s criminal code. Espionage trials in the country can take months and are typically conducted in secret. Acquittals are virtually unheard-of.
Photos and video appeared to show Mr. Gershkovich exiting a court building in Moscow on Thursday afternoon with a jacket hood over his head. He pleaded not guilty to espionage charges, the Russian state news agency Tass reported.
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Mr. Gershkovich, 31, has worked for The Journal in Moscow since January 2022 and previously reported in Russia for Agence France-Presse and for The Moscow Times. Before that, he was a news assistant for The New York Times, based in New York.
No Western journalist has been tried on espionage charges in Russia in recent years. Many foreign news organizations sharply curtailed their activities in the country last year after harsh new laws in effect outlawed some forms of independent reporting after the invasion of Ukraine.
Several Western outlets temporarily removed their reporters from Russia in March 2022, citing the risk of prosecution for standard forms of news gathering. Since then, correspondents from some Western news organizations have continued to report out of Russia, albeit in smaller numbers than in previous years.
American journalists, in particular, have been concerned about a situation like the one now unfolding with Mr. Gershkovich: that Russian authorities might detain a correspondent from a U.S.-based organization amid the larger tensions between the two countries.
The National Press Club, a Washington-based professional organization for journalists, condemned what it called “an unjust detention” and called for his immediate release.
In past espionage cases, after a guilty verdict, Russia has sought an exchange for a Russian spy held in the West. In 2019, in exchange for two convicted Russian spies in Lithuania, Moscow freed a Norwegian man who had been held for 23 months on accusations of espionage.
The detention of Brittney Griner, an American W.N.B.A. star, on a minor drug charge in February 2022 set off a monthslong negotiation between Moscow and Washington for her release, culminating in a prisoner swap that freed a Russian arms dealer from U.S. custody. American officials have also pushed for the release of Paul Whelan, a former Marine who has been held in Russia since 2018 and sentenced to 16 years in prison for what the United States considers sham espionage charges.
While Ms. Griner was detained, Russian officials repeatedly stated that they would not consider a prisoner exchange until her legal case had run its course. U.S. officials secured her release only after she was convicted, in August, and sentenced to nine years in a penal colony.
On Thursday, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei A. Ryabkov, signaled that it was too soon to discuss a swap for Mr. Gershkovich. “Certain exchanges that took place in the past took place for people who were already serving sentences,” Mr. Ryabkov told reporters, according to the Russian news agency Interfax, adding, “Let’s see how this story will develop.”
Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center who is based in France, said that Mr. Gershkovich’s reporting on the Russian military was what had most likely attracted the attention of the Russian security services, adding that they probably saw an opportunity to gain a new negotiating chip.
“I think that it will attract a lot of attention politically in the United States so that the authorities will have to react,” she said, adding that his arrest “puts the Kremlin in an advantageous position.”
Ms. Stanovaya said that Mr. Gershkovich’s detention could further erode foreign reporting in Russia. While Moscow had already been cracking down on press freedom in the years leading up to the invasion of Ukraine, foreign correspondents had continued to receive accreditation from the Russian Foreign Ministry — including Mr. Gershkovich, who the F.S.B. said was accredited — and had generally been able to operate freely.
Mr. Peskov said that the Kremlin was not planning to shut down The Wall Street Journal’s Moscow bureau. “Those that are carrying out normal journalistic activity, if they have a valid accreditation, then of course they will continue to work,” he said.
The Journal recently named a new top editor, Emma Tucker, who now faces one of the most daunting challenges of a long career. In 2014, as deputy editor of The Times of London, Ms. Tucker was closely involved in an episode involving two of the British newspaper’s correspondents who had been kidnapped and detained in Syria. One of the journalists, Anthony Loyd, was shot twice in the leg, and the other, the photographer Jack Hill, was beaten up before the men were able to escape.
Victoria Kim contributed reporting.