When US basketball star Brittney Griner was arrested in Russia in February of last year, it would take roughly 10 months before Washington managed to secure her release in a prisoner swap.
That is relatively short by the standards of recent prisoner negotiations between Moscow and Washington, and might at first glance offer a glimmer of hope to Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal journalist being held in a Russian jail after he was recently charged with espionage.
However, while both arrests appear to have been driven by Moscow’s determination to step up hostilities with the west, former and current US officials, as well as people familiar with the Russian legal system, warn that Gershkovich faces a tougher and potentially longer path to release.
That is primarily because, unlike Griner, who was charged with drug smuggling offences, Gershkovich has been accused of being an American spy.
“The Russians expect a lot in return for a person they consider a spy,” said former US ambassador to Russia John Sullivan, who has worked on several prisoner exchanges, including Griner’s.
Gershkovich, a 31-year-old New Jersey-born son of Soviet émigrés, was arrested on March 29 while working on what had been a dream assignment for The Wall Street Journal in Russia. The newspaper and US officials vehemently deny allegations he was working as a spy. On Monday, the US state department formally declared him wrongfully detained, which will escalate government efforts to work for his release.
One other American is being held on espionage charges in Russia: Paul Whelan, a former US Marine and a corporate security executive who was convicted in 2020 on espionage charges that he has denied. First arrested in 2018, Whelan has been passed over in other prisoner swaps, including two last year to free Griner and another American, Trevor Reed.
Secretary of state Antony Blinken recently said the US had made an offer to Russia to secure Whelan’s freedom “some months” ago.
The long period between Whelan’s detention and conviction could offer some insight into how long Gershkovich’s ordeal might last, said Sullivan. “They will not discuss period, nothing, will not discuss trades, status of a detainee, et cetera, until that person is convicted.”
Gershkovich has met with his Russian lawyers but American officials have not been able to visit him in jail to assess his welfare or provide assistance. He has pleaded not guilty to espionage charges and has filed an appeal, according to Russian state media, but little information is available about his case or its timing. Espionage cases in Russia usually proceed in secret trials with near-guaranteed convictions.
Even when Russian officials may be prepared to discuss possible trades, Moscow is expected to demand a lot to secure Gershkovich’s release.
Former Democratic New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who has a foundation that helps the families of Americans detained overseas, said US officials could find it difficult to resolve Gershkovich’s and Whelan’s cases separately. Moscow could try to seek multiple prisoners in exchange for returning the pair, he added.
“It’s going to be difficult to bring Evan back without Whelan,” said Richardson, who has worked on several cases of US nationals being held in Russian prisons. “I am almost convinced that the Russians will want prisoner exchange and they’re probably going to ask for the kitchen sink, maybe beyond the two for two.”
Until any such exchange, Gershkovich will remain an unwitting pawn in the diplomatic stand-off between Russia and the US, which has become increasingly acrimonious against the backdrop of the protracted war in Ukraine.
Friends and colleagues say it is harrowing to see their friend, a gregarious, talented reporter — and committed Arsenal fan — become part of the story that he had been dedicated to telling. They point to the grim irony of his being held in an FSB prison in Moscow some 40 years after his parents fled Russia as part of a Jewish migration wave.
“He wrote one insightful exclusive story after another about the turn that Russia has taken — it’s a tragic irony that he is now a victim of the repressive turn,” said Deborah Ball, one of Gershkovich’s editors at the Wall Street Journal.
Pjotr Sauer, a reporter at The Guardian who met Gershkovich while working at the Moscow Times, said: “Evan never wanted to be the centre of the story. He wanted to write the story.”
Gershkovich will not be able to watch Arsenal’s last Premier League game in London in May as he had planned. But Sauer plans to send Gershkovich regular letters in the hope that they will reach him and let him know how the team is doing.