Evan Gershkovich is being held in Russia's notorious Lefortovo Prison on espionage charges. Who would Moscow be willing to swap for the Wall Street Journal reporter?
"They've arrested him on the absurd charges of being a U.S. spy. And they are therefore trying to angle, it seems to me, to get one of their own Russian spies arrested in the West released," says Harvard intelligence historian Calder Walton.
He thinks Gershkovich's arrest looks like a ploy by Vladimir Putin to get back so-called "illegals," spies operating in deep cover.
At the top of the list may be Sergey Cherkasov, a Russian man posing as a Brazilian student named "Victor Ferreira," who attended Johns Hopkins University. He was arrested last year before beginning an internship at the International Criminal Court, which recently issued an arrest warrant for Putin. It was just five days after the U.S. Department of Justice indicted Cherkasov for acting as a foreign agent, in March, that Russian authorities arrested the U.S. journalist.
"There are several reasons why I think the Russian government under Putin would want to get back an illegal, and probably this 'Brazilian person' in particular. Putin, a former KGB officer, regards deep cover illegals as one of the highest forms of Russian nationalism," Walton says.
A slew of spies working in deep cover for Russia have been rounded up in Europe over the past year: In Norway, authorities arrested a man identified as Mikhail Mikushin, a university lecturer who also posed as a Brazilian under a false name. Swedish authorities arrested a couple working in imports and exports that had acquired Swedish nationality. A Stockholm court sentenced former Swedish intelligence officer Peyman Kia to life in prison. There are more cases in Germany, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia and beyond.
But in an interview with Scripps News, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby remained tight-lipped about other countries that could be involved in negotiations for Gershkovich. "I really don't want to talk about diplomatic conversations we might or might not be having with Russia or other countries. Because we, you know, the moment you start doing that, the moment you make those kinds of possibilities a little harder to realize."
The State Department office that helps to free Americans deemed "wrongfully detained" told us they don't want to speculate on what Putin wants.
Diane Foley, who lost her son to ISIS, tells us the hostage enterprise — comprised of the White House, the State Department's special envoy for hostage affairs, and an inter-agency fusion cell led by the FBI — needs a stronger approach to deter Russia and other foreign governments, "to make it hurt to take our citizens." She says that in the last ten years, there has been a significant increase in imprisoned Americans. "It went from two countries taking our people, primarily Iran and China, for geopolitical reasons, to now 19 in the last decade."
She says the problem has become a national security threat for Americans traveling abroad, and the longer these shrouded negotiations will take, the harder it is to reach an agreement with a foreign government. "If they're not getting what they want, they can think of other ways to make it more and more difficult to negotiate. And they'll use the innocent citizens as bargaining chips."
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