Russia has now placed itself on a short list of rogue states, a list that includes belligerent nations like North Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran, by taking Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich hostage, according to Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Kyle Parker.
Parker, a Maine native and former University of Maine graduate, has spent 20 years at the front lines — figuratively and literally — of American foreign policy.
From his position on the Helsinki Commission, also known as the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Parker has travelled into Ukraine seven times since the start of the Russian invasion in 2022. During his visits, sometimes to the frontlines of war zones, Parker has collected stories and physical evidence that tell the human story of Russia’s genocidal war of aggression against the former Soviet satellite.
In an interview with the Maine Wire on Thursday, Parker shared his informed perspective on the high-level politics that are about to play out as Gershkovich, his family, his newspaper, and his country, now endeavor to get him back on U.S. soil.
Gershkovich, a 2014 graduate of Bowdoin College, has previously worked as a journalist for the New York Times and the Moscow Times. He was reporting from the WSJ’s Moscow Bureau when he was arrested at a restaurant in Yekaterinburg. Russian media has reported that he will be detained at the infamous Lefortovo Prison outside of Moscow.
Parker said the Kremlin’s arrest of the 31-year-old journalist was likely an opportunistic move to add another bargaining chip to the deadly geopolitical game playing out between the United States and Russia, amid what many view as a proxy war in Ukraine.
“Russia is becoming in this sense very much like Iran and North Korea,” Parker said.
“It’s been a very hostile environment anyway for a long time, but it hasn’t quite been Iran, North Korea level,” he said. “And this is very much hostage taking.”
The escalation in how police forces at the command of Russian President Vladimir Putin treat westerners, including journalists, is part of the reason the U.S. State Department has been asking Americans to avoid traveling to Russia. The U.S. State Department reiterated its call Thursday for any Americans residing or traveling in Russia to exit the country immediately.
Parker said it’s easy to see how the Russians would use Parker communicating via encrypted channels with government officials — something any journalist would do — as a pretext to level espionage accusations. But he also said the Russian government doesn’t even need a pretext in order to arrest an American citizen.
“They’ll cook a pretext up out of thin air,” he said. “The truth is, you don’t have to give them anything.”
Parker said even in the mid-1990s when he started going to Russia, every American knew that the Russians were watching. There was an understanding that if you broke the law or did something embarrassing, it would later be weaponized against you. He said the key development in Russia is when it no longer became a matter of an American making a mistake, but instead a matter of the Russian government inventing crimes in the true Stalinist tradition.
“What began to happen, and I think this is something that not everybody understood: at what point did Russia become a place where you didn’t need to give them anything. And we’ve been in that place for a while now,” he said. “We’ve known this, we’ve known the risks.”
“What happened to Evan is what we sort of expect to happen, and what we’ve seen happen, to western reporters in environments like Iran and North Korea,” he said. “So this situation just moves Russia closer to this total rogue state category.”
He said that, if the developments with Gershkovich affected the Biden Administration’s posture toward the war in any way, it would vindicate their view that Russia must be handed defeat in Ukraine.
“The surest way to get to a better place is for Russia to be defeated on the battlefield in Ukraine. That’s the Russian small “d” democrats greatest hope for any positive change in Russia, is for Russia to be dealt a decisive defeat in Ukraine,” he said.
The Russian desire to use Gershkovich as a bargaining chip may bode well for how he’s treated — and how long he remains — in Russian custody. As a foreign journalist arrested on trumped up espionage charges, Gershkovitz would be easier for Russia to release as part of a deal, Parker said, then a Russian journalist like Vladimir Kara-Murza, a dissident journalist who has been incarcerated since April 2022 on charges of disobeying the police.
“It’s great to frog march an American and put him in a cage and show that to their citizens,” he said.
“Whether they have someone in mind as to who they want to trade this person for yet — it doesn’t matter. There’s a general or a high level spy who has yet to be rolled up. It’s kind of like having money in the bank,” he said.
Victor Ferreira, a Johns Hopkins graduated who was recently unmasked as Russian spy Sergey Cherkasov in Brazil, may face extradition back to the U.S. Parker said Ferreira would fit the profile of someone whom the Biden Administration might trade to get Gershkovich back on U.S. soil.
Parker will be coming to the University of Maine on April 17 to give a presentation about his experiences in Ukraine. The Maine Wire will post more information about the talk when it becomes available.