The Year-Long Detention of Evan Gershkovich: When Foreign Nationals Become Political Pawns


Mar 29, 2024

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich stands inside an enclosure for defendants before a court hearing in Moscow, Russia, October 10, 2023, photo by Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich stands inside an enclosure for defendants before a court hearing in Moscow, Russia, October 10, 2023

Photo by Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on The Hill on March 29, 2024.

For detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, March 29 will likely pass like the 364 days before it, just another line scratched into a metal wall. As his confinement in a Russian prison enters its second year, Gershkovich is among the latest high-profile victims of Russia's cruel and calculated prisoner gamesmanship.

Jailing foreign nationals is an increasingly common tool of Russia's coercive diplomacy, and not just in Russia. In fact, Russia is not even among the five worst serial detainers over the last 25 years. My research shows that Iran, Turkey, China, North Korea, and Venezuela together account for three-quarters of the total arbitrary detentions during that period.

But Russia, recently, has been scaling the ranks. I have found that it is now third among countries still holding foreign detainees and of the 13 foreign nationals described as wrongfully held by Russia, 12 have been detained in the last five years. In the past two years, Russia has arrested four Americans, and just recently a South Korean missionary.

This clearly points to a strategy. Detaining foreign nationals incurs little risk for the detaining state, and it can bring a large return.

Detaining foreign nationals incurs little risk for the detaining state, and it can bring a large return.

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In some cases, individuals may be arrested for ordinary crimes such as illegal entry, fraud, bribery, or drug possession. But when political motivations are added into the mix, ordinary crimes can lead to extended wrongful detentions, negotiations, difficult compromises, and, for the lucky ones, release.

Recent cases that have received international media attention include that of former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who was convicted of spying and has been held in Russia for more than five years.

Alsu Kurmasheva, a Russian-born U.S. citizen and journalist for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, is in the sixth month of her captivity on charges of failing to register as a foreign agent and spreading false information.

Schoolteacher Marc Fogel was arrested in Russia on drug charges and sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2022. Professional basketball star Brittney Griner was also arrested on drug charges but freed in a prisoner exchange with the United States. in 2022. Other Americans are currently being detained in Russia but have not received similar media attention.

Sometimes, Americans are arrested for crimes that do not exist in the United States, such as religious proselytization—Christian missionary Andrew Brunson, who was released in 2018 after two years in a Turkish prison, is an example. One American, who was sent back to the United States in a coma after more than a year of detention in North Korea, was arrested for tearing down a government poster, which can warrant the death penalty in that nation.

Russia has a law saying anyone criticizing the Russian war can get up to 15 years in prison.

Espionage is the most common charge, but this can be defined broadly. Charges can be fabricated and targets set up. The trials are usually opaque, if not entirely secret. Gershkovich was jailed on espionage charges, and little information has been forthcoming about the status of his case.

Less than two weeks after his arrest, the State Department declared Gershkovich “wrongfully detained,” thus officially designating that he had become a political pawn. It brings no comfort to know that his time in prison is not long compared to other detainees. Counting those still being held as of the end of 2023, the average length of time wrongfully detained Americans detained in the last 25 years spent in prison is 42 months, per my calculations.

It is somewhat reassuring to know that most of those detainees were ultimately released.

The real motives for the detention of Gershkovich and the others, of course, have little to do with justice or appropriate punishment. Foreigners may be detained to dissuade foreign entities from encouraging democracy or to discourage foreign reporters from writing articles the regime deems hostile.

Individuals may be targeted with a specific purpose in mind—a prisoner swap or policy concession, but hostages may also be accumulated as a kind of “bank account” for future use in circumstances not yet determined.

What does Russia seek in these latest detentions? As Russia's recent elections confirm, one man clearly decides.

In part, the detentions reflect Russian President Vladimir Putin's instinctive paranoia and his deep hostility toward the West, particularly the United States which has fanned the flames of Putin's anger with its steadfast support for Ukraine. In part, the detentions also are retaliation for the economic sanctions imposed on Russia.

Just weeks before Gershkovich was arrested, President Biden approved new sanctions on six Russians involved in the incarceration of Vladimir Kara-Murza, a prominent Russian dissident. In Putin's “KGB think,” the mere act of imposing sanctions demanded swift reprisal.

Russia learned how easily the United States can be manipulated by high-profile hostage situations from Griner's detention. Griner was a valuable asset—a sports star with a large fan base that mobilized on her behalf.

Russia learned how easily the United States can be manipulated by high-profile hostage situations from Brittney Griner's detention.

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Detaining Gershkovich, not only a journalist but a reporter from the influential Wall Street Journal, the Russians may have reckoned, would keep the issue in the news, thus boosting his value. It resulted in renewed pressure on Biden, giving Putin another token to play with in the upcoming U.S. presidential elections.

In 2014, Iran detained Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post's correspondent in Tehran for 544 days. This reflected similar strategic thinking. Russia's detention of Gershkovich suggests that the detainers are learning not only from their own experience but from each other.

Negotiating a deal to bring Gershkovich and the others home will not be easy. Humanitarian appeals seldom work. There is always a quid pro quo. But circumstances constrain what can be put on the table—vital strategic interests cannot be ignored. Russia and the United States are indirectly at war.

Still, the situation is not hopeless. Even at the height of the Cold War, with NATO and Warsaw Pact armored divisions poised nose-to-nose in Central Europe, backed by tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, and one Soviet leader threatening to “bury us,” Moscow and Washington were still able to negotiate spy swaps.

Fortunately, cordial relations are not a prerequisite to a deal that could bring Gershkovich and the other detainees home.

Brian Michael Jenkins, senior adviser to the president of RAND, has been involved in hostage negotiations as a researcher and practitioner for more than 50 years. He advised the Catholic Church and Church of England in dealing with kidnappings in Lebanon in the 1980s. While at Kroll Associates in the 1990s, he was responsible for the group's kidnap and ransom response practice.