Editor's note: This story has been updated with a statement from the White House.
Russia's top security agency said it has arrested a reporter with The Wall Street Journal on espionage charges.
Evan Gershkovich, a U.S. citizen, was detained in the eastern city of Yekaterinburg, on suspicion of collecting "secret information" about a Russian defense company, according to a translated version of the Federal Security Service (FSB)'s statement on Thursday.
"It has been established that E. Gershkovich, acting on an assignment from the American side, was gathering information classified as a state secret about the activity of one of the enterprises of Russia's military-industrial complex," the FSB said.
Under Russian law, Gershkovich could face up to 20 years in jail if convicted. The FSB did not specify the name of the defense company's he was alleged to have been collecting information on, or provide further details or evidence of Gershkovich's guilt.
The Journal forcefully denied the allegation in a statement.
"The Wall Street Journal vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seek the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter, Evan Gershkovich," the Journal said."We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family."
Gershkovich denied the charge in court, Russia’s state-run news agency TASS reported.
The FSB's accusation was swiftly backed by the Kremlin, suggesting the arrest was likely authorized from above than from the local security forces in Yekaterinburg.
Dmitry Pesko, Putin's spokesperson, told reporters on Telegram that Gershkovich was caught "red-handed" and the Kremlin has nothing to add.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova claimed that Gershkovich's trip to Ekaterinburg was "not related to journalism."
SC Media has reached out to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow for comment.
In a statement, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the administration has been in contact with the Wall Street Journal and State Department, and has been in "direct touch" with Russian government in an effort to secure consular access for Gershkovich.
She also reiterated that U.S. citizens should leave Russia "immediately" and refrain from traveling the country, saying they risked being "targeted" by the Russian government.
"The targeting of American citizens by the Russian government is unacceptable. We condemn the detention of Mr. Gershkovich in the strongest terms. We also condemn the Russian government’s continued targeting and repression of journalists and freedom of the press," Jean-Pierre said.
Gershkovich is the first foreign reporter to be arrested on spying charges in Russia since the Cold War, when US News and World Report journalist Nick Daniloff was detained by the KGB in 1986.
Daniloff was released 20 days later without charge in exchange for a Soviet citizen who was arrested by the FBI, also for espionage.
Gershkovich, 31, covers Russia, Ukraine and the former Soviet Union for the Journal. He was a former reporter for Agence France-Presse and the Moscow Times, and a news assistant at the New York Times, according to his profile information on The Wall Street Journal.
His most recent article ”Russia’s Economy is Starting to Come Undone” was published on Tuesday.
A local Russian online news publication reported that Gershkovich was arrested on Wednesday afternoon, when security agents entered the city’s Bukowski Grill restaurant, and took a man with a sweater pulled over his head.
Press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) tweeted that during his trip to Yekaterinburg, Gershkovich was investigating a military company associated with The Wagner Group, a mercenary outfit that has deployed tens of thousands of troops as part of Russia's offensive in Ukraine.
RSF called the arrest of Gershkovich Russia's "retaliatory measure" against the U.S. "Journalists must not be targeted," the press group said.
Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive, is still serving a 16-year sentence in Russia on similar charges as Gershkovich.
In December last year, the WNBA star Brittney Griner was released after being detained for 10 months in a Russian prison colony in exchange for the notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout.