WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged his Russian counterpart, in a rare phone call between the diplomats since the Ukraine war, to immediately release a Wall Street Journal reporter who was detained last week as well as another imprisoned American, Paul Whelan, the State Department said Sunday.
In the call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Blinken conveyed “grave concern” over the Kremlin's detention of journalist Evan Gershkovich on espionage allegations, according to a State Department summary of the call. Blinken called for his immediate release.
Blinken also sought the immediate release of Whelan, whom the statement said was wrongfully detained. U.S. officials said they were considering a similar determination for Gershkovich that could be made at any time. Should that happen, his case would be largely transferred to the office of the U.S. Special Presidential for Hostage Affairs.
Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive, has been imprisoned in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the U.S. government have said are baseless. He is serving a 16-year sentence.
Blinken and Lavrov also discussed “the importance of creating an environment that permits diplomatic missions to carry out their work,” according to the State Department.
The FSB, Russia's top security agency and successor to the KGB, said Gershkovich was collecting information on an enterprise of the military-industrial complex. Russian authorities detained him last week, the first time a U.S. correspondent has been held on spying accusations since the Cold War.
In its summary of the call, Russia’s foreign ministry said Lavrov “drew Blinken’s attention to the need to respect the decisions of the Russian authorities" about Gershkovich, whom Moscow claims, without evidence, “was caught red-handed.”
The Journal has adamantly denied the allegations and demanded his release. U.S. officials have also called on Russia to let him go, with President Joe Biden telling reporters on Friday that his message to the country was “Let him go.”
The Kremlin said Lavrov also told Blinken it was unacceptable for U.S. officials and Western news media to continue “whipping up excitement” and politicizing the journalist’s detention. "His further fate will be determined by the court.”
The State Department described the detention of Gershkovich as unacceptable.
Emma Tucker, the newspaper's editor-in-chief, said it was “gratifying” and “reassuring” to learn of Blinken’s call because it shows the U.S. government is taking the case “right up to the top.” The Journal has been unable to get messages to the reporter or learn any official information about him, she told CBS' “Face the Nation.”
U.S. consular officials have requested a visit with Gershkovich but no announcement of such access has been made. Officials said they were hopeful consular access could be arranged in the coming week but could not speak to when that might happen.
Tucker said the newspaper is hopeful a lawyer might be able to meet with Gershkovich this coming week, and in the meantime has been “pressing constantly for reassurance that he’s not being mistreated in any way.”
Rep. Mike Turner, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, noted that the government has advised U.S. citizens to leave Russia. “This is not unexpected, in that Russia is acting as an illegal state at this point. There are no laws or rules or no international norms that they are following,” Turner, R-Ohio, told CNN's “State of the Union.”
In alleging that U.S. officials and news media are hyping Gershkovich's detention, Russian officials are reprising a theme they used in the apprehensions of basketball star Brittney Griner and other U.S. citizens. The Kremlin has said it prefers to resolve such cases quietly and has emphasized the need to follow Russia’s judicial process. Often, that means the chance of progress in U.S. efforts to free its detained citizens isn’t likely until formal charges are filed, a trial is held, a conviction is obtained, and sentencing and appeals are completed.
More than 30 news organizations and press freedom advocates have written the Russian ambassador in the United States to express concern Russia is sending the message that reporting inside the country is criminalized.
On Saturday night, Griner, who was detained for 10 months by Russian authorities before being released in a prisoner swap for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, issued a statement with her wife, Cherelle, calling for the release of the 31-year-old Gershkovich.
“Every American who is taken is ours to fight for and every American returned is a win for us all,” the couple said in a statement posted on Instagram.
Interactions between the top U.S. and Russian diplomats have been rare since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, though they did have a brief conversation last month on the sidelines of the Group of 20 conference of foreign ministers in India. It was the highest-level in-person talks between the two countries since the war.
That interaction was their first contact since last summer, when Blinken talked to Lavrov by phone about a U.S. proposal for Russia to release Whelan and Griner. Though Whelan was not included in the one-for-one swap that resulted in the release of Griner, U.S. officials said they remain committed to bringing him home.
Associated Press writer Hope Yen contributed to this report.