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US soldier goes on trial in Russia on charges of theft, threatening to kill

The Russian flag. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Gordon Black, who was arrested in the Far East city of Vladivostok in early May, went on trial on June 6 in a case that further complicates relations between Moscow and Washington.

Black was arrested in late May and initially charged with stealing 10,000 rubles [$110] from his Russian girlfriend Aleksandra Vashchuk. He was additionally charged with “forcibly grabbing” Vashchuk by the neck during a quarrel, which she considered as a threat to her life.

If found guilty, the 34-year-old Black faces up to seven years in prison.

Vladivostok’s Pervomaisky district court started the trial on June 6, with Vashchuk and a witness questioned.

Vashchuk asked the court not to send Black to prison, saying he needed psychiatric assistance.

“He is just an unhappy person. He does not deserve to be imprisoned. He deserves treatment, which he was not provided by his country, although they knew about his situation…The man needs help. Yes, he committed a crime, but he did not do something so terrible to be sent to prison,” Vashchuk said.

After the testimony, the trial was then adjourned until June 17.

U.S. authorities said earlier that Black had been arrested in Russia and accused of stealing from a woman after traveling via China from South Korea — where he had been assigned before heading back home to Texas — without informing his superiors.

Weeks later, Russian authorities also said that another U.S. citizen, identified as William Russell Nycum, had been detained in late April on “petty hooliganism” and alcohol charges in a separate case, adding that Nycum was being held in a detention center in Moscow.

The two arrests have once again raised questions over whether Russian authorities are targeting Americans by detaining them and then using them in potential prisoner swaps amid sharp disagreements between Moscow and Washington over the war in Ukraine and other international security issues.

The detentions of Black and Nycum added to a list of U.S. citizens being held in Russia under various circumstances and came as tensions between Moscow and Washington are at their highest levels since the Cold War.

Among those being held are journalists Alsu Kurmasheva of RFE/RL and Evan Gershkovich of The Wall Street Journal. Both have been detained on charges they, their employers, and their supporters reject as politically motivated.

American Paul Whelan in 2020 was convicted and sentenced to 16 years in Russian prison on espionage charges that he and the U.S. government have repeatedly rejected.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry has said the cases involving Black and Nycum are not political and neither is accused of espionage.

The State Department in September 2023 issued a “do not travel” warning to U.S. citizens and cited “the singling out of U.S. citizens for detention by Russian government security officials.”