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A Russian court has sentenced a U.S. soldier to nearly 4 years in prison

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Gordon Black sits in a glass cage in courtroom in Vladivostok, Russia, on Wednesday.
AP
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U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Gordon Black sits in a glass cage in courtroom in Vladivostok, Russia, on Wednesday.

Updated June 19, 2024 at 13:57 PM ET

MOSCOW — A Russian court has sentenced a United States soldier to nearly four years in prison on charges of theft and threatening to murder, the latest in a series of arrested American citizens in Russia amid simmering tensions over Ukraine and other issues.

Staff Sgt. Gordon Black, 34, had been stationed in South Korea and was preparing to return on leave to the U.S. when he made a decision thatU.S. Army officials say was in violation of rules.

Without informing superiors, Black traveled to Russia's Far Eastern city of Vladivostok, entering via China, to see his Russian girlfriend with whom he had started a relationship during his posting overseas.

The judge convicted Black on all charges and sentenced him to three years and nine months in a prison colony. Prosecutors had asked for four years and eight months. Black had plead guilty to taking money but said he had no intent to harm, and plead not guilty to the charge of threatening to murder his girlfriend, a Russian national named Alexandra Vashchuk.

The American's fate is now likely to be another irritant in current diplomatic talks with Moscow.

Black and Vashchuk reportedly had a volatile relationship

Last month, Vashchuk filed a police report that accused Black of stealing 10,000 rubles — just over a hundred dollars — from her purse and attempting to choke her after the couple had an argument.

In court, Black pleaded guilty to taking the money, saying he used it to check into a hotel but later returned the sum.

He also denied any intent to kill Vashchuk, saying he had only temporarily subdued her after she attacked him in a drunken rage.

Ahead of the ruling, Vashchuk swayed between wanting to see Black punished and calling for leniency by the court.

"I don't want to see him get a long sentence," she said in one interview outside the courthouse. "He's sick. He needs psychological help."

According to local media reports, Vashchuk didn't attend the verdict.

Social media postings from 2022 to 2023 on Vashchuk's account show her and Black talking about a range of issues while both were living in Seoul. The conversations were first reported by the U.S.-government-sponsored Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty news service.

In one exchange, Vashchuk asks Black what he thinks of U.S.-Russian tensions between Russia and the U.S. under President Biden.

"The relationship definitely isn't good now," says Black in response.

The verdict complicates current diplomatic talks

Black's conviction has presented another challenge for U.S. authorities already working to gain the release of several Americans in Russian jails on what the White House says are spurious charges.

Among them is Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who Russian authorities accuse of spying for the CIA. His closed-door trial begins in the city of Yekaterinburg next week.

In the run-up to Gershkovich's trial, a top Russian diplomat suggested the White House was stalling on a Kremlin prison exchange offer.

"The ball is in the court of the United States, we are waiting for them to respond to the ideas that were presented to them," said Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov in comments to the state TASS news agency.

"I understand that, perhaps, something in these ideas does not suit the Americans, added Ryabkov. "(But) that's their problem."

The White House says it has made substantial offers aimed at gaining the release of Gershkovich and Paul Whelan, a former Marine who was sentenced to 16 years on espionage charges in 2018.

In recent years, the Biden administration has also cut deals with Moscow to secure the release of WNBA basketball star Brittney Griner and former Marine Trevor Reed from Russian prisons.

Critics of those swaps say the deals encouraged additional hostage-taking of Americans.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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