Russia’s ambassador to the United States said that Washington had threatened to retaliate if Moscow did not release the Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was arrested in Russia and charged with espionage, marking a new low in tensions between the two countries.
The ambassador, Anatoly Antonov, told Russian television’s Channel One that he recently had a “very tough” conversation with Victoria Nuland, the under secretary of state for political affairs, who he said had accused Russia of illegally detaining Mr. Gershkovich.
“The Americans threatened us with retaliatory measures if we do not release Gershkovich in the near future,” Mr. Antonov said in the televised interview on Thursday. “I tried to calm them down,” he said. “We shall see how they will act.”
It was not immediately possible to verify Mr. Antonov’s claim. Ms. Nuland had summoned the Russian ambassador to a meeting at the agency’s headquarters on the same day that Mr. Gershkovich appeared in a court in Moscow, where he was formally arrested on charges of espionage. The State Department said at the time that Ms. Nuland had criticized Russia’s detention of the Wall Street Journal reporter.
On Monday, the State Department designated Mr. Gershkovich as “wrongfully detained,” which means that the U.S. government sees him as the equivalent of a political hostage and reflects its belief that the charges are fabricated.
American officials and The Wall Street Journal have vehemently denied the accusation that Mr. Gershkovich was engaged in any kind of spying activity. The case has prompted outpourings of support from Mr. Gershkovich’s colleagues and press freedom groups.
Mr. Gershkovich’s detention in late March, the first arrest of a Western journalist in Russia on espionage charges since the Cold War, has had a chilling effect on the international press corps in Moscow. The State Department designation of Mr. Gershkovich as “wrongfully detained” also reflects a concern among U.S. officials that his case appears to signal an even more severe Kremlin crackdown on independent news media and the free flow of information within the country.
In his interview with Channel One, Mr. Antonov also suggested that it might be time to reduce the number of American journalists working in Russia, bringing it down to match the number of Russian journalists working in the United States. His comments appeared to be in reference to claims from Moscow that Russian journalists have encountered difficulty getting visas to work in the United States.
On Thursday, President Vladimir V. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, denied an earlier report by Bloomberg that the Russian president personally approved the arrest of Mr. Gershkovich. He also reiterated that Mr. Gershkovich was caught “red-handed.” The Russian authorities have not provided any evidence to back up their accusations.
Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei A. Ryabkov, has signaled that it was too soon to discuss a swap for Mr. Gershkovich. On Thursday, he reiterated those sentiments and said the issue of exchange could be considered only once justice runs its course, according to Tass, a Russian state news agency. A typical espionage case can take around two years between arrest, court verdict and appeal, according to Russian lawyers.
The Biden administration has called for Russia to immediately release Mr. Gershkovich. It has also demanded that he receive consular access.
Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said on Wednesday that the issue should be resolved “in due time.”