When Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was arrested in March 2023, it was the first time an American reporter had been arrested for espionage inside Russia since the end of the Cold War. Gershkovich had been in Russia since before its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, but had a long history with the country.
His parents fled the Soviet Union in the 1970s and settled in New Jersey, where Gershkovich grew up speaking Russian. Although he was living in Moscow for years prior to his arrest, he had only begun working for the Wall Street Journal since 2022. Less than a year after switching jobs, he was arrested by the FSB (formerly the KGB) in Yekaterinburg and has been held ever since.
U.S. officials had been watching the specialized unit of the FSB that arrested Gershkovich for years. The FSB’s Department for Counterintelligence Operations, or DKRO, is known to plant bugs in Americans’ homes and hotel rooms, try to recruit American informants, and even send beautiful Russian women to seduce Marines on embassy duty with the hopes of extracting information.
The DKRO has been behind the illegal detention of other Americans, even those not as high-profile as Gershkovich, including Marine Corps veterans Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed, along with others that haven’t been reported. They don’t stop at high-visibility missions like counterespionage, either. They’ve been known to slash the tires of U.S. embassy officials, in increasing regularity since Moscow and Washington began publicly deriding one another.
“The DKRO never misses an opportunity if it presents itself against the U.S., the main enemy,” Andrei Soldatov, a Russian security analyst who has spent years studying the unit, told the Wall Street Journal. “They are the crème-de-la-crème of the FSB.”
With virtually unlimited resources and near impunity, the DKRO has harassed and arrested Americans inside Russia for an unknown length of time, according to research conducted by the Journal inside Russia. They are responsible for monitoring the Americans and Canadians and are ruthless at their work.
Paul Whelan was arrested after what his lawyers claim was an entrapment plot by the DKRO, who convinced him to get involved in a plot involving a USB thumb drive. Trevor Reed was detained after a night of drinking with friends, when Russian authorities claimed he assaulted a police officer. Reed was sentenced to nine years in prison but was exchanged for a captured Russian pilot. Whelan was sentenced to 16 years, and is still being unlawfully detained.
Meanwhile, the DKRO continues its campaign of harassing and provoking Western visitors, residents, and even American diplomats. They have been accused of breaking into diplomat’s homes and stealing jewelry after searches, tracking embassy vehicles with low-flying helicopters, and even cutting the power to the residence of the U.S. ambassador to Moscow.
When American diplomats are assigned to Moscow, they are given special training to avoid the DKRO and to follow what are unofficially called the “Moscow Rules.” These rules are an unwritten code of 10 guidelines used by CIA operatives while in Russia, as laid out by CIA officer Tony Mendez (of “Argo” fame).
As for the DKRO, they are not only the best of the FSB, they are paid handsomely for their work, ensuring they remain incorruptible. They receive bonuses for successful counterintelligence operations, stipends for their unemployed spouses, and the best medical care in Russia, among other benefits.
At least four private American citizens have been unlawfully detained in Russia in recent years, two are still being held, and two who were exchanged through prisoner swaps. Although campaigns to free Whelan and Gershkovich are ongoing, little headway has been made. For Americans planning to travel or work in Russia, it’s probably best to learn and adhere to the “Moscow Rules” for the foreseeable future.
For more about the FSB’s DKRO counterintelligence agency, check out the full Wall Street Journal article.