Former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow John Sullivan said a Wall Street Journal reporter arrested in Russia will likely face a sham, closed trial on espionage charges and endure tough treatment, like that inflicted upon American detainee Paul Whelan.
Without speculating on Moscow’s motivation behind the arrest of 31-year-old Evan Gershkovich, Sullivan told CBS News in an interview Thursday that he is “confident it was worked on for a significant period of time.”
“This is not some random detention of an American,” but “a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, a globally prominent news organization,” he said. “Something that significant would be approved at the highest levels in Moscow.”
Gershkovich was arrested on Wednesday in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, more than a thousand miles east of Moscow. The Wall Street Journal declined to comment to CBS News on what Gershkovich had been doing there at the time.
The Biden administration has faced criticism for agreeing last year to release Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer convicted of conspiracy to kill Americans and supporting terrorist activities, in exchange for WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was detained in Russia after illegally bringing cannabis into the country. Whelan, who has been behind Russian bars since 2018 on far more serious espionage charges, was left behind in that deal.
“In response to my many public statements complaining about Paul Whelan’s secret trial, they simply said Paul was caught red-handed. They’re using that expression again in this case. It’s not a good sign,” said Sullivan, who was ambassador from 2019 to 2022.
He added that if Gershkovich’s case ends up being like Whelan’s, he would likely be interrogated by the FSB, Russia’s security service, in an FSB prison and tried in a special court by a judge who handles espionage cases.
“Portions of the trial will not only be closed. The defendant won’t be allowed to attend. The rationale is that national security is involved and even the defendant can’t see the evidence that it’s being used against him,” Sullivan said.
Gershkovich’s lawyer was denied entry into a very swift hearing in Moscow on Thursday, where a court ruled that the journalist should be detained for the next two months.
Sullivan used to visit Whelan in Lefortovo Prison in Moscow, where Gershkovich is also now being held. “It’s an FSB and a fort of a prison, different from the ordinary pretrial detention system in Moscow. It’s old. It’s drafty. It’s got a scary reputation because it was a prison used by the KGB,” he said. “Every time I met with Paul there was always a senior FSB official there with us.”
The White House said that Gershkovich was targeted but it is not clear yet to U.S. officials if this was intended as a “tit-for-tat” arrest. Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice unveiled an indictment against a man named Sergey Cherkasov, accusing him of being a Russian spy. Cherkasov allegedly posed as a Brazilian graduate student while living in Washington, D.C., and later attempted to infiltrate the International Criminal Court in the Hague, prosecutors said. He is now serving a 15-year sentence in Brazil for identity fraud.
Asked if the timing of Gershkovich’s arrest may have anything to do with Cherkasov’s case, Sullivan said, “The Russians do like to engage in tit-for-tat behavior. Hard for me to know. It’s possible.”
The State Department has kept its travel advisory for Russia at its highest level, warning Americans to avoid travel to the country. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated on Thursday that U.S. citizens residing or traveling in Russia should depart immediately.
Margaret Brennan contributed reporting.