US soldier detained in Russia; White House says 2nd American newly detained

PENTAGON — The U.S. Army has confirmed that a U.S. soldier was arrested last week during an unauthorized visit to the Russian far eastern port city of Vladivostok, one of two recently detained Americans in Russia.

Army spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said Tuesday Staff Sergeant Gordon C. Black had been stationed in South Korea and signed out on permanent change of station leave on April 10 en route to Fort Cavazos, Texas. Instead of returning to the continental United States, Black flew through China to Vladivostok for “personal reasons.”

“Black did not request official clearance, and [the Department of Defense] did not authorize his travel to China and Russia, Smith added. 

U.S. officials told VOA he appeared to have traveled to Russia to see a woman whom he was romantically involved with.

Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh told reporters Tuesday the Army is investigating the incident and that any leave to Russia was “strictly prohibited,” according to the Department of Defense’s foreign clearance guide.

The White House said on Tuesday it confirmed “two separate cases” of U.S. citizens being detained in Russia, without identifying the second detainee.

Russian officials identified the second American as William Russell Nycum. He was detained 10 days ago in Moscow on petty hooliganism and alcohol charges, according to the Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti.

“The State Department is actively seeking consular access to both individuals, neither of whom are in Russia on behalf or in affiliation with the U.S. government,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters.

A Russian Ministry of Interior official informed the U.S. Embassy in Moscow on May 3 that Black was arrested a day earlier in Vladivostok for theft of personal property. Smith said the Army has no further information about the charge at this time and that Black will remain in a pretrial detention facility until his next hearing. 

According to RFE/RL a TikTok account of Black’s romantic partner, Vladivostok native Aleksandra Vashchuk, contains numerous videos of the couple together in South Korea. In one video, Black is wearing his U.S. Army fatigues and kisses the camera of a woman, presumably Vashchuk, as she speaks in Russian.

RFE/RL says Vashchuk refers to Black as her husband and affectionately as “pindos,” a Russian slang word for Americans that roughly translates to “Yankee punk.”

The Associated Press reports that unnamed officials say Black is accused of stealing from his “girlfriend.”

The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Michael McCaul, said he is “deeply concerned” by reports of the detainment.

“Putin has a long history of holding American citizens hostage,” McCaul said in a post shared on X. “A warning to all Americans — as the State Department has said, it is not safe to travel to Russia.”

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

Also being held is Paul Whelan, who in 2020 was convicted and sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges, which he and the U.S. government have repeatedly rejected.

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