Russia’s State-Sponsored Hostage Taking Reaps Rewards for the Kremlin

By Paul Kolbe

Paul Kolbe is former director of The Intelligence Project at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.  Kolbe also led BP’s Global Intelligence and Analysis team supporting threat warning, risk mitigation, and crisis response. Kolbe served 25 years as an operations officer in the CIA, where he was a member of the Senior Intelligence Service, serving in Russia, the Balkans, Indonesia, East Germany, Zimbabwe, and Austria.

By Calder Walton

Calder Walton is Assistant Director, Applied History Project, Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He is the author of Spies: The Epic Intelligence War Between East and West and Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire.  He is also general editor of the Cambridge History of Espionage and Intelligence 3 volumes (Cambridge University Press).

OPINION – Russia’s arrest of Wall Street Journal journalist and US citizen, Evan Gershkovich, on espionage charges is the latest example of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB)’s long practice of state-sponsored hostage taking and repression of the press. No one should be surprised.

Two issues about Gershkovich’s case need to be understood: first, contrary to Kremlin claims, the CIA does not use US journalists as cover for espionage. Second, unlike the US, Russia has a long history of using journalists as spies.

The CIA is prohibited under 50 USC 3324 from using US journalists as sources of intelligence or as cover for its officers stationed overseas. This is a public policy decision based on the importance attached to investigative journalism in a free, democratic, society.

By contrast, Russia’s services have long-used state media outlets as cover for espionage. This goes back to the Soviet Union’s earliest days, when it was an international pariah, with few diplomatic relations. Soviet media bureaus offered some of the few opportunities for Moscow to send intelligence officers overseas.

An early Soviet front for espionage in Britain, for example, was the “Federated Press of America”. Established in 1923, its “journalists” included Soviet intelligence officers and operatives. Next came the Soviet news agency, Russia’s All-Telegraph Agency (ROSTA), which opened offices in Britain in 1925. MI5’s investigations into it, corroborated by decrypted Soviet communications, revealed that ROSTA was a Soviet espionage front. ROSTA later became known as TASS, which continued to operate through the twentieth century, and still exists today.

Throughout the Cold War, the KGB and Soviet military (GRU) intelligence used TASS as cover for officers in the West. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, a GRU officer in Washington, Georgi Bolshakov, ostensibly working as TASS reporter, tried to broker a back-channel as the superpowers stood on the brink of nuclear war. It is reasonable to suppose that, after the Soviet collapse, TASS has continued to be used as cover for Russian intelligence.

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Gershkovich’s arrest will help the Kremlin repress Western media efforts to provide accurate reporting from within Russia. Any independent journalism is a threat to Putin’s regime and its Orwellian world of propaganda and disinformation. The basic role of investigative journalism is precisely what places journalists in the Kremlin’s crosshairs: asking awkward questions and holding governments to account. Before his arrest, Gershkovich prolifically reported on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the course of the war, and its impact on Russia.

Putin’s government has, over the years, subjected journalists to persecution, arrest, and in some cases, worse. Journalist Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in the elevator of her Moscow apartment in October 2006 in what many believe was a contract killing at the Kremlin’s direction. The Kremlin, of course, denies the allegation.  The murder of US journalist and historian, Paul Klebnikov, in Moscow two years earlier, is widely considered to have been a murder for hire—with many again seeing a trail back to Putin’s Kremlin.

In recent years, the most drastic action that accredited foreign journalists in Russia could expect would be deportation— not FSB arrest. Gershkovich’s detention seems a turning point, though it is not without precedent. It brings back memories of the KGB’s arrest of a US journalist in the Soviet Union, Nicholas Daniloff, in September 1986, on charges of espionage.

Daniloff’s arrest, when US-Soviet relations were apparently improving, became a crisis. Daniloff denied that he was working for the CIA and president Ronald Reagan personally wrote to the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, stating this. It earned a brisk, rude, reply from Gorbachev. Daniloff was swapped in an exchange for a Soviet official arrested by the FBI. Reagan was correct in his diary to describe Daniloff as a hostage. After his release, Daniloff wrote that the KGB had fabricated the case against him.

Gershkovich has now been taken to Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, where Daniloff was previously imprisoned. It is macabrely known as the KGB’s shooting prison, the walls of which remain potted with bullet holes from Stalin’s mass executions. A Moscow district court has authorized his detention until May 29.  Trial and conviction will inexorably follow. Indicating Gershkovich’s likely fate, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergey Ryabkov, noted that “exchanges in the past happened with people who were already serving time.”

Gershkovich’s detention comes after a succession of Russian intelligence failures in Western countries, including the arrest of Russian deep-cover “illegals” in Sweden, Norway, and Slovenia.

Most significantly, on March 24th, the US Department of Justice indicted alleged Russian intelligence officer, “Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov (“Cherkasov”), 37, a national of the Russian Federation who operated as an “Illegal” agent for a Russian Intelligence Service (“RIS”) under the Brazilian alias of Victor Muller Ferreira.” Cherkasov, now detained in Brazil, is accused of “acting as an agent of a foreign power, visa fraud, bank fraud, wire fraud, and other charges stemming from his illegal activities in the United States.”

The timing of Cherkasov’s indictment in the US, and Gershkovich’s arrest in Russia, is no coincidence. Russia will try to parlay Gershkovich’s arrest into a spy swap. By detaining him on espionage charges, Russia is seeking the release of one of its own spies arrested in the West.

Russia knows that hostage-taking works. That is the lesson from Daniloff and the trade of women’s basketball (WNBA) star, Brittney Griner, detained in Russia for carrying hash oil, whom the US swapped in January 2023 for a convicted and notorious Russian arms dealer, Victor Bout. Watch now for a Russian offer to trade Gershkovich for a Russian arrested in the West, but not before the American is featured in a show trial, inevitably convicted, and sentenced to a harsh term.

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All Americans who are still in Russia are at risk of arbitrary detention. On March 13, the United States warned all Americans to immediately leave Russia due to “the potential for harassment and the singling out of U.S. for detention by Russian government security officials.” State Department Spokesman John Kirby reiterated this warning after Gershkovich’s arrest saying “any Americans living or traveling in Russia should leave the country right away.” These warnings did not contain an exception for journalists.

There is no rule of law there. Along with Gershkovich, we should remember Paul Whelan, the American who has been in prison on espionage charges since December 2018, Russian journalists who have been silenced, and the thousands of Russians who have been imprisoned for expressing opposition to Putin’s war.

Washington’s best policy is to press relentlessly for Gershkovich’s release, and publicize Russia’s action at every opportunity, but refrain from giving into the bald blackmail of another hostage trade. Exchanges will simply reward hostage taking by the Kremlin and set the stage for its next trumped-up detention.

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