US condemns Russia detention of Wall Street Journal reporter; Finland receives Turkey endorsement to join NATO: Updates

The Biden administration strongly condemned Russia's detention of a Wall Street Journal reporter on espionage charges Thursday and said it was working to provide American Evan Gershkovich with consular access.

The Federal Security Service (FSB) detained Gershkovich, 31, in the eastern city of Yekaterinburg earlier Thursday. 

"The targeting of American citizens by the Russian government is unacceptable," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement. "We also condemn the Russian government’s continued targeting and repression of journalists and freedom of the press."

The Journal denied the spy allegations, issuing a statement requesting the immediate release of "our trusted and dedicated" Moscow-based reporter.

“We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family,” the statement said.

Russian state media said a Moscow court ordered Gershkovich, who faces up to 20 years in prison on espionage charges, held until May 29 pending investigation. Espionage trials are generally conducted in secret and – as with all Russian trials – acquittals are almost impossible to obtain.

Gershkovich, who reports on Russia as part of the Journal’s Moscow bureau, is accredited to work as a journalist in Russia by its foreign ministry, the agency said. He is the first reporter for an American news outlet to be arrested on espionage charges in Russia in decades. It comes as the Ukraine war has driven relations between Washington and Moscow to a low not seen since the Cold War.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Gershkovich's realease and condemned "the Kremlin’s continued attempts to intimidate, repress, and punish journalists and civil society voices."

The FSB said in a statement it had "thwarted the illegal activities" of Gershkovich.

"It was established that Evan Gershkovich, acting at the request 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 statement said. "While trying to obtain secret information, the foreigner was detained."

WHO IS EVAN GERSHKOVICH?: What we know about WSJ reporter arrested by Russia on espionage charges

Journalist Evan Gershkovich on  July 24, 2021.
Journalist Evan Gershkovich on July 24, 2021.

NUCLEAR TENSIONS: US not told Russia intends to halt nuclear weapons communication; Zelenskyy invites China's Xi to visit: Ukraine war updates


►Ukraine Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said on Estonian TV that the much-discussed spring counteroffensive will involve several areas, that more occupied land will be wrested from Russia and that the world will see “positive changes for Ukraine."

►The Ukraine military accused Russia's security officers in the Crimean town of Krasnoperekopsk of undressing, interrogating and beating civilians. Russia seized Crimea in 2014; Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has vowed to take it back.

►The Biden administration hasn't seen any evidence of "egregious misconduct" in the management of the billions of dollars in security assistance sent to Ukraine, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said.

Britain's King Charles III speaks with Ukrainian refugees as they visit the Ukraine Arrival Center at the former Tegel airport in Berlin on March 30.
Britain's King Charles III speaks with Ukrainian refugees as they visit the Ukraine Arrival Center at the former Tegel airport in Berlin on March 30.

Russian diplomat backtracks, says talks about nukes with US will continue

A top Russian diplomat is backtracking from remarks he made Wednesday indicating the Kremlin was halting all communication about nuclear weapons with the U.S.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Thursday that Russia will continue to give the U.S. advance notice about its missile tests despite suspending the last remaining nuclear arms treaty between the two countries, the 2011 New START pact.

Ryabkov said Russia will live up to its pledge last month to continue notifying the U.S. about missile tests in line with a 1988 U.S.-Soviet agreement. His comments Wednesday raised alarms about the possibility either of the countries could mistake a test launch for a missile attack, especially at a time of heightened tensions between them.

The State Department said Wednesday that it had not “received any notice indicating a change.” Ryabkov's comments that day came as Russia deployed mobile launchers in Siberia, an apparent show of the country’s huge nuclear capability.

In late February, Russian President Vladimir Putin suspended participation in the New START treaty, but Kremlin officials emphasized it wasn’t withdrawing from the pact altogether and would continue to respect the caps on nuclear weapons the pact set.

Finland gets Turkey's OK, final step before getting accepted into NATO

Finland received the final approval it needed to join NATO when Turkey's parliament voted unanimously in favor Thursday, days after Hungary’s parliament also endorsed Helsinki’s accession.

They were the last two holdouts in the way of Finland's membership, and they remain the only ones among NATO's 30 nations yet to accept Sweden's application despite expressing support for expansion.

Alarmed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a year ago, Finland and Sweden abandoned their decades-long policy of nonalignment and applied to join the Western military alliance, which requires unanimous approval.

“This will make the whole NATO family stronger & safer,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg tweeted in response to Turkey’s decision.

Americans should stay away from Russia, U.S. officials reiterate

The U.S. State Department has been warning Americans against traveling to Russia since late January 2022, and followed that in early March of last year by urging U.S. citizens to leave the country after it invaded Ukraine.

That's not always easy for those who make a living in Russia, as has been the case with Gershkovich, but officials are reiterating the message in light of the journalist's detainment.

"Americans should please heed the U.S. government's warning not to travel to Russia,'' National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Thursday. "U.S. citizens residing or traveling in Russia should depart right away, as the State Department continues to advise.”

Journalists sometimes need to take security risks in performing their jobs, and even more so those covering a country engaged in war. Kirby acknowledged that reality.

"We respect that,'' he said. "But it doesn't change our deep concern about the presence of Americans being in Russia.”

– Rebecca Morin

Fugitive of Russian thought police captured in Belarus

A Russian fugitive escaping from a conviction for discrediting the military after his daughter drew an antiwar sketch in school was detained in neighboring Belarus, an ally of the Kremlin.

Alexei Moskalyov, 54, was captured in the Minsk province, Russian and Belarusian media reported Thursday, after fleeing from house arrest before his conviction was revealed Tuesday in his hometown of Yefremov, about 200 miles south of Moscow.

Reuters reported that Moskalyov, who was sentenced to two years in a penal colony, may have given away his location by turning on his cell phone. His plight made news internationally as an example of the Kremlin's crackdown on dissent after the invasion of Ukraine. Moskalyov was convicted over antiwar social media posts he denied were his.

Moskalyov, a single father, came to the authorities' attention after his then-12-year-old daughter, Masha, drew a picture at school depicting Russian missiles being fired at a woman and child with the words, “No to war” and “Glory to Ukraine.” Earlier this month, she was placed in an orphanage.

Who is Evan Gershkovich?

Gershovich has worked as a reporter in Russia since 2017. His most recent article was published Tuesday, focusing on the Russian economic slowdown amid Western sanctions. He previously worked at Agence France-Presse and the Moscow Times. Earlier, he was a news assistant in New York for the New York Times, according to a biography on the Journal website. He is a graduate of Bowdoin College in Maine, the Journal said.

Gershovich was taken into custody in Yekaterinburg, Russia's fourth-largest city with 1.5 million people, about 1,000 miles east of Moscow. The city made global news last year as home to the women's basketball team that Brittney Griner played for when the WNBA star was arrested at a Russian airport on drug charges.

Could Gershkovich be freed in a prisoner exchange?

Griner was ultimately released in a deal that freed notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout from a U.S. prison. Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was asked about the possibility of a prisoner exchange for Gershkovich.

“I would not even raise the question right now” because he has not been convicted,  Ryabkov was quoted by state media. “We’ll see how this story develops further.”

Report: Russia may be trying to add 400,000 more troops

Russian media reporting suggests the Kremlin is preparing to start a major military recruitment campaign with the aim of signing up another 400,000 troops, the British Defense Ministry said in its latest assessment of the war. Russia is presenting the campaign as a drive for volunteer, professional personnel, rather than a new, mandatory mobilization, the ministry said.

"Russian authorities have likely selected a supposedly ‘volunteer model’ to meet their personnel shortfall in order to minimize domestic dissent," the ministry said. "It is highly unlikely that the campaign will attract 400,000 genuine volunteers."

Russia also needs more munitions and military equipment supplies than it has available, the ministry said.

Former Swiss bankers convicted of aiding Russians, Putin

Four former bankers with the Swiss affiliate of Russia's Gazprombank have been convicted in Zurich of failing to properly check accounts opened in the name of Russian cellist Sergei Roldugin. Roldugin has longtime ties to President Vladimir Putin, and the U.S. Treasury Department describes Roldugin as “part of a system that manages President Putin’s offshore wealth.”

All four defendants denied the charges, which include allegations of violating Swiss anti-money-laundering law.

Documents filed when the accounts were opened listed expected transactions of $12.2 million. The indictment noted how Putin has “enormous assets managed by people close to him.” Gazprombank maintained the accounts despite “abundant” media reports about Roldugin’s relationship to with Putin, including that he was godfather to one of Putin’s daughters, the indictment said.

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ukraine war live updates: Russia detains Wall Street Journal reporter