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Russia is jailing an increasing number of private American citizens


The U.S. and Russia have worked out prisoner swaps for decades, but those cases used to involve trading spies for spies. Today, an increasing number of private American citizens are being jailed by Russia. This now includes a Wall Street Journal reporter.

NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is here with us to tell us more about where things stand. Good morning, Greg.


MARTIN: So let's start with the latest on the detention of this Wall Street Journal reporter, Evan Gershkovich. Where do things stand?

MYRE: So the U.S. State Department on Monday formally designated Gershkovich as being wrongfully detained. Now, this comes two weeks - or about two weeks - after he was seized on March 29 and charged with espionage, which The Wall Street Journal and the U.S. government strongly reject. The designation means his case will be handled by a U.S. special envoy who specializes in these matters. But it's just - it's not clear that this will influence Russia. There's another American, Paul Whelan, who was also declared wrongfully detained after his 2018 arrest on espionage charges. He's now in his fifth year of a 16-year sentence. And we're - with Gershkovich, the U.S. embassy is still trying to get access to him. His lawyers were able to see him last week at the notorious Lefortovo Prison in Moscow.

MARTIN: So could you just remind us of how this case is different compared to those that people may be familiar with from years past?

MYRE: Yeah. If we go back to the Cold War years, the Soviet Union and the U.S. periodically detained each other's spies. They most often kicked them out of the country immediately and sent them home. Occasionally, they negotiated spy swaps, but it was often behind the scenes. Neither side really wanted much publicity. They just wanted to get their spies back and debrief them.

But there's been a rise worldwide in these wrongful detentions of U.S. citizens, mostly in countries where the U.S. has strained relations, and these countries are seeming to be acting for political rather than legal reasons. And I spoke about this with Chris Costa. He's the head of the Spy Museum in Washington. And before that, he served at the White House as the point person for Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained.

CHRIS COSTA: In the last few years, the paradigm has shifted, where countries like Russia, countries like China, countries like Venezuela have made it part of their foreign policy to roll up Americans - to arrest and detain Americans.

MARTIN: Greg, how many Americans are we talking about?

MYRE: Well, currently, there are more than 50 being held in about 15 countries. This includes both hostages held by militant groups and wrongfully detained individuals held by states, according to groups tracking these cases. In Russia, there's been at least four American private citizens who've been wrongfully detained in recent years - the two we've just spoken about, who are still being held, and two who were released last year, including basketball star Brittney Griner, who was freed in December in a prisoner swap.

MARTIN: And it's controversial, but could the current cases be resolved the same way - another prisoner swap?

MYRE: Possible - perhaps a little too early to say with any certainty - but at the moment, the U.S. isn't holding any high-profile Russians who might be part of a swap. There are some Russians jailed in the U.S. But also, Russian leader Vladimir Putin may feel these U.S. detainees give him some leverage with the U.S. - a way to put pressure on the Biden administration. Also, Putin and Russia - leaders have been very critical of any media organization, domestic or foreign, over the war in Ukraine, and many Western and Russian journalists have left the country. Gershkovich, who has reported from Russia for six years, is among the few who are still in Russia.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Greg Myre. Greg, thank you so much.

MYRE: Sure thing, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
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