Putin can’t handle the truth: Why American journalist Evan Gershkovich, who was abducted for revealing Russia’s economic collapse, must be freed

Evan Gershkovich, an American journalist working for the Wall Street Journal, has been detained in Russia.
Kirill Kudryavstev—AFP/Getty Images

Early this morning, Putin’s hatchet men abducted and arrested Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich who had the courage to shine a spotlight just this week on how “Russia’s economy is starting to come undone,” closely tracking the findings of my team over the last few months on the implosion of the Russian economy, amidst reports that he is working on follow-up investigations of the Wagner Group and the Russian defense supply chain.

This courageous journalist, an American citizen, now faces 20 years in Russian hard-labor prisons after merely telling the truth about the collapse of Russia’s economy and defense establishment.

The detainment of a widely respected American journalist represents a new, horrific escalation by Putin, who is opening a new front in his war. The U.S. cannot let Mr. Gershkovich rot away in Russian prisons for the crime of accurately capturing the state of the Russian economy. Yes, that really is his crime–the trumped-up charges he faces are that he “acted in the interest of the U.S. government” in seeking to “collect information” about “one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex”–which now makes up 60% of Russian government spending. So, in other words, he was arrested for asking questions about the Russian economy.

Obviously, every American citizen has cause to be outraged by Mr. Gershkovich’s wrongful detainment–but this injustice is especially personal to me. In 2002, a close personal friend, WSJ reporter Danny Pearl, was abducted and murdered as he covered 9/11-related leads in Pakistan. Sadly, the Pakistani courts have released his convicted murderers.

Considering that I am ranked as number five on Putin’s enemies list, I canceled a scheduled trip to that region–and was rewarded with vandals painting the pro-Putin “Z” on my home driveway.

Members of our 40-person Yale volunteer research team and I have been in frequent communication with virtually all of the dedicated WSJ Russia-Ukraine team, along with several of our own sources on the ground. In countless recent conversations, we have encouraged them to counter the misleading IMF certification of Putin’s propaganda and pursue leads into how the Russian economy is crumbling.

Mr. Gershkovich has cited our work extensively in his determined reporting on Russia’s economic implosion, as have essentially all of his WSJ-Russia close colleagues. I am frequently exchanging information and insights with several journalists from the close-knit WSJ-Russia beat, though I do not know Mr. Gershkovich well. And just today, I have been fielding private notes of alarm from his startled colleagues.

We know that Mr. Gershkovich was merely telling the truth when he reported on Russia’s economic implosion, as his dire portrayal is supported by extensive facts and data–some of which were uncovered by our own research team. My researchers and I have been tracking the slow but steady deterioration of the Russian economy over the last year, as the effects of sanctions combined with the exits of over 1,000 global multinational companies gradually eat away.

As Mr. Gershkovich uncovered, the myth of Putin’s resilient economy is nothing but a myth as the world economy no longer needs Russia and relegates it to backward isolation. Putin’s initial oil and gas windfalls have turned into dramatic budget deficits. Russia has lost most of its major gas markets thanks to the self-defeating gambit of withholding energy shipments from Europe. Meanwhile, the G7 oil price cap has seriously bit into oil profits as Putin finds out the hard way that it is always easier for consumers to replace unreliable commodity suppliers than it is for disreputable producers to find new markets.

Meanwhile, Putin is relying on lies and cannibalization to sustain his flailing economy, raiding corporate treasuries to the tune of trillions of rubles at a time, and drawing down his rainy-day reserves through unsustainable government spending. Combined with rising military costs, it is little wonder Russia ran a budget deficit exceeding 2% last year despite sky-high energy prices–and this year’s deficit is projected to be much worse amidst a massive exodus of talent, capital, and business, a collapse in trade, and plummeting domestic spending and production. Mr. Gershkovich was not exaggerating–or working for the CIA–when he wrote that “Russia’s economy is starting to come undone.” He was stating a fact.

Perhaps Mr. Putin felt more emboldened to target Mr. Gershkovich for telling the truth about Russia’s economic collapse because his reporting is so at odds with the false narrative of Russian “economic resilience” and the alleged “inefficacy of Western sanctions.” These falsehoods are sadly repeated ad nauseum by influential Western commentators ranging from Larry Summers to Fareed Zakaria–and have become prevalent despite the lack of evidence. Putin’s initial energy windfall from last year has fully dissipated. A year into the invasion, his economy is demonstrably running out of gas. Mr. Gershkovich had the courage to challenge the prevailing narrative with careful, well-evidenced research that accurately documented the implosion of the Russian economy. For that, he is now facing 20 years in a hard-labor Russian prison camp.

Sadly, this is not the first time Putin has detained American citizens on flimsy pretexts. But unlike others such as Brittney Griner or Paul Whelan, Mr. Gershkovich was a credentialed, respected journalist who was arrested for merely doing his job. Putin might not care for freedom of speech inside his own country, but by prosecuting well-known American journalists in broad daylight, he has crossed a line that even he had never crossed before–and every bloodthirsty despot will be watching.

As with the passive allowance of Putin to take over the presidency of the UN Security Council this weekend, our State Department’s reflex of quiet diplomacy is insufficient. Putin is challenging us for a forceful response if he doesn’t release the wrongfully detained WSJ journalist, Evan Gershkovich, immediately.

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld is the Lester Crown Professor in Management Practice and Senior Associate Dean at Yale School of Management.

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