(Moscow) Russia on Thursday remanded an American journalist from the Wall Street Journal whom it accuses of espionage, an unprecedented case in the recent history of the country in the context of increased repression since the offensive against the Ukraine.

Evan Gershkovich’s arrest was announced Thursday by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Kremlin claimed he was caught “in the act”, without substantiating his charges.

This case comes at the height of tensions between the United States and Russia linked to the conflict in Ukraine, and Washington accuses Moscow of detaining several of its citizens for political reasons.

Mr. Gershkovich, a perfectly Russian-speaking reporter known for his thoroughness, denied the charges against him during a hearing in a Moscow court, according to the Russian state news agency Tass.

“Breaking news: Russia’s main security agency says it is detaining journalist Evan Gershkovitch, a US citizen, for espionage,” the New York newspaper wrote on its Twitter account earlier this morning.

The 31-year-old American journalist was nevertheless remanded in custody until May 29, the court said in a statement. This detention can be extended pending a possible trial.

According to Tass, the case has been classified as “secret”, which severely limits the publication of information about it. The journalist’s lawyer, Daniil Berman, said he was unable to attend the hearing on Thursday.

The only details available at this stage: the FSB announced that it had “thwarted an illegal activity” by arresting Evan Gershkovich in Ekaterinburg, in the Urals, on an unspecified date.

The Russian security services say they suspect him of “espionage for the benefit of the United States”, accusing him in particular of having collected information “on a company of the Russian military-industrial complex”.

According to Article 276 of the Russian Criminal Code, the journalist theoretically faces up to 20 years in prison.

Before joining the American daily in 2022, Mr. Gershkovich was a correspondent for AFP in Moscow, and before that, for the English-language newspaper Moscow Times. He is of Russian origin and his parents reside in the United States.

“The Wall Street Journal is deeply concerned for the safety” of Evan Gershkovich, the daily said in a brief statement.

The NGO Reporters Without Borders said it was “alarmed” at “what appears to be a retaliatory measure: journalists must not be targeted!” »

And France said it was “worried” and called on Moscow to respect freedom of the press.

Ignoring criticism, the Kremlin claimed Mr Gershkovich had been caught “in the act”, and warned against any form of retaliation against Russian media in the United States.

Since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, Russia has passed several laws punishing heavy prison sentences for any criticism, or equating journalistic investigations on certain sensitive subjects with espionage.

“The new Russian legislation […] allows anyone with an interest in military affairs, the special military operation (in Ukraine), private military groups, the state of the army,” notes independent Russian analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, who heads the R. Politik analysis center.

She also believes that the FSB may have taken the journalist “hostage” for a possible prisoner exchange.

Several Russian-American exchanges have indeed taken place in recent years.

Asked about a potential future exchange with Washington, Russian diplomacy deemed the subject premature, calling via its Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, to “see how this story evolves”.

Several Americans are already detained in Russia, one of whom, Paul Whelan, is serving a 16-year prison sentence for “espionage” in a case that the person concerned and Washington consider fabricated.

The latest exchange between Moscow and Washington took place in December when Russia handed over American basketball player Brittney Griner, detained on drug charges, in exchange for the release of arms dealer Victor Bout who is incarcerated in the United States.

If the Russian press and journalists critical of the Kremlin are often prosecuted, foreign journalists have been spared, Moscow having preferred to expel correspondents and toughen accreditation rules.

Foreign reporters are also sometimes followed by the security services during their reporting, especially outside Moscow.

In this context, many Western media have greatly reduced their presence in Russia since the entry of Russian forces into Ukraine.