Evan Gershkovich
Evan Gershkovich was arrested and accused by Russia of espionage © via Reuters

The US state department is preparing to declare American journalist Evan Gershkovich wrongfully detained, a designation that will escalate Washington’s efforts to secure his release.

“In my own mind, there’s no doubt he’s being wrongfully detained by Russia,” secretary of state Antony Blinken told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday. However, the US must complete the appropriate procedures to make that designation official.

“I want to make sure as always, because there is a formal process, that we go through it, and we will, and I expect that to be completed soon,” he said.

Gershkovich, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal in Russia, was arrested last week and detained on charges of espionage. US officials and the WSJ vehemently deny the charges. US president Joe Biden and dozens of news organisations have called for his immediate release.

Blinken said he conveyed his view about Gershkovich during a rare phone call with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, over the weekend. He said he also demanded the release of Paul Whelan, another American considered wrongfully detained who is also being held on espionage charges. Whelan was arrested in Russia in 2018, and convicted and sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020.

The US summoned the Russian ambassador to the state department to protest Gershkovich’s arrest on March 30, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said on Wednesday.

The arrest of Gershkovich, the New Jersey-born son of Soviet émigrés, has plunged already-bad relations between Moscow and Washington to a post-cold war low. He is the first US journalist to be detained by Russia since 1986.

He is being held in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, a pretrial detention centre run by the FSB, Russia’s security service.

Once the state department makes the formal declaration, its office of the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs will supervise the case. The office works on negotiations for hostages and other US citizens classified as wrongfully imprisoned in foreign countries. The designation will enhance the US government’s ability to design and execute a strategy for Gershkovich’s release.

Blinken on Wednesday said the US has made a proposal for a prisoner swap for Whelan that has been on the table for several months. He said he urged Lavrov to accept it.

Gershkovich met his Russian lawyers on Tuesday, who said he was in good health and grateful for the outpouring of support for his case. US officials have not been able to visit him to assess his condition.

“[Russia] has an opaque and highly bureaucratic process for consular access and it will probably be several days before we can gain consular access,” a state department official said.

Last year the US negotiated two prisoner swaps for other Americans deemed unjustly held by Russia, including basketball star Brittney Griner. She was detained in February 2022 and later convicted of drug smuggling after a small amount of hashish oil was found in her luggage. She was swapped in December for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Trevor Reed, a US citizen and former Marine, was swapped in April 2022 for a Russian citizen who was held on drug charges. He had been detained in 2019 on charges of endangering Russian police officers in an altercation.

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