“I’ll let that process play out,” Blinken told reporters following a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels. Nevertheless, he added, “In my own mind, there’s no doubt that he’s been wrongfully detained by Russia.”
Gershkovich, who was arrested in late March during a reporting trip to the city of Yekaterinburg, could face 20 years in prison if convicted on espionage charges. Russia’s security service has accused the journalist, 31, of gathering information about a Russian military enterprise, a claim the Wall Street Journal has rejected.
Blinken’s remarks represent the first substantial public comments on the case by a top U.S. official. President Biden previously said in reference to Gershkovich’s arrest: “Let him go.”
Blinken said he expected the State Department’s assessment would be completed soon. A determination of wrongful detention would also enable the government to provide support and information to Gershkovich’s family. The process may have been slowed by Russia’s refusal to allow U.S. diplomats to visit Gershkovich in prison.
The journalist’s detention comes at a moment of intense antagonism between the world’s two largest nuclear powers, whose leaders are sharply at odds over President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and a series of other issues.
Blinken called for Gershkovich’s release during a call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov over the weekend. The two have spoken only infrequently since the start of Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine in February 2022.
Gershkovich’s arrest follows extensive negotiations over the fate of WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was sentenced to prison in Russia on drug charges and later released in exchange for Viktor Bout, a Russian imprisoned in the United States on arms trafficking charges.
His detention raises the possibility of bargaining over another prisoner swap. The Biden administration is also urging the Kremlin to free Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who is serving a 16-year sentence on espionage charges. The administration’s attempt to secure the release of Whelan, who like Griner was declared “wrongfully detained,” in the same exchange with the athlete was unsuccessful.
Blinken suggested that, while the Biden administration wants to free both Whelan and Gershkovich, there are limits to the steps it can take toward that goal.
“In any of these instances, there is a balance to be done between trying to bring home people who have been unjustly detained in one way or another, and what it takes to do that,” he said. “As we’ve demonstrated in the past … even as we engage in efforts to bring people home, we can also increase the pressure and increase the penalties on those who engage in the practice of unlawful arbitrary detention of American citizens.”
As NATO leaders gathered in Brussels to celebrate Finland joining as its newest member state, Putin, appearing before a diplomatic audience at the Kremlin, blamed the United States for provoking the bloodshed in Ukraine.
“Unfortunately, relations between Russia and the United States, on which global security and stability directly depend, are experiencing a deep crisis,” he said in remarks during a ceremony attended by the recently arrived ambassadors from European nations and the United States. “At its core are fundamentally different approaches to shaping the modern world order.”
Addressing Washington’s new envoy in Moscow, Lynne Tracy, Putin accused the United States of historically supporting revolutions in countries from the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine, and suggested this had led to the degradation of Russian-American relations.
The Kremlin has frequently accused Washington of interference in matters in Russia’s orbit, including in Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan Revolution, which was made up of a series of pro-democracy protests and ultimately saw the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovych.
“Russia has no preconceived or hostile intentions toward anyone,” Putin continued. “Russia is open to dialogue with all countries, and is not going to isolate itself.”
In the 14 months since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Putin has sought to illustrate his country’s resilience despite increasing isolation, far-reaching economic sanctions and an evolving effort to hold Russian officials accountable for their actions in Ukraine.
Last month, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin over Russia’s alleged relocation and forced detention of Ukrainian children. But Putin is not entirely sequestered from powerful friends. In an apparent signal of his disregard for the global court’s order, Chinese President Xi Jinping paid a visit to Moscow days later.
Western officials and diplomats, meanwhile, have downplayed the threat of significant Russian retaliation for NATO’s expansion this week, noting that Moscow has seen Finland’s accession coming for months. As Russia’s forces face stiff resistance in Ukraine, it does not have a lot of soldiers or equipment to spare.
But Finland’s membership, which doubles the alliance’s border with Russia, was met with harsh rhetoric in Moscow. Meanwhile, NATO officials hold out hope that Sweden will also finalize its accession before an alliance summit scheduled for the summer.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov described the U.S.-Russian relationship as a “wreck,” echoing Moscow’s longtime view that NATO nations’ activities close to Russian borders are a provocation and a threat. “Relations are ruined, and the United States is responsible for that,” he said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also warned that Russia could take unspecified “measures” in response.
According to the Wall Street Journal’s editor in chief and publisher, lawyers for Gershkovich were able to visit him in prison Tuesday. In a statement, they said Gershkovich appeared to be in good health.
The newspaper executives said they were working to secure his release and noted that, at the time of his arrest, he was working under accreditation from the Russian government.
“He was doing what journalists do — asking questions and providing an eyewitness account in the region to help keep the world well informed,” they said. “His imprisonment is wholly unjustified and an attack on a free press.”
Ebel reported from London.
One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine
Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.
Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.
A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.
Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.