For the first time since the Cold War, Russia has arrested an American journalist, accusing Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich of “espionage.” Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, snatched Gershovich this past Wednesday while he was on a reporting trip to the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, and he is now imprisoned in Moscow.

Shocking though this might be, it was predictable that Russia would do something like this after Biden last year swapped a notorious Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, for U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner. Bout, sometimes dubbed the merchant of death, and nabbed after a global manhunt, was convicted and jailed in America on charges of conspiring to kill Americans. Swapping Bout for Griner sent Putin a clear message that he can get a fat ransom for American hostages. 

It’s highly unlikely that the 31-year-old Gershkovich, who had worked as a journalist in Russia for years, was engaged in “spying,” nor has Russia provided any evidence (and if Russian authorities produce anything labeled as such, please be wary of anything emerging from the murk of Russia’s state disinformation and propaganda mills). Rather, this arrest inside the tyranny of Vladimir Putin’s Russia has all the marks of yet another political gambit to bedevil and shake down Washington.

We need to understand that this arrest is the latest in a long list of Putin’s moves to play a Biden administration that failed to deter his 2022 invasion of Ukraine. While Putin massed his forces along Ukraine’s borders, Biden officials—fresh from overseeing America’s disastrous surrender of Afghanistan to the Taliban—raced around trying to provide an “off ramp” for Putin. As if he were incapable of finding one for himself, were he so motivated.

With the arrest of Gershkovich, Putin has every reason to expect the Biden administration will now tie itself in knots trying to appease and wheedle and deal with Russia to get this latest high-profile prisoner home. Another American hostage, former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, has been imprisoned in Russia since 2018, also accused of espionage, which he and the U.S. government have denied. For Putin, he remains another bargaining chip. Even the U.S. concessions in the Griner swap failed to bring Whelan home.

Holding Americans hostage is a neat way for Putin to bait the already-feeble Biden administration. It is also, for Putin, a handy way to distract us from whatever menacing deals  he’s cooking up in partnership with China’s communist dictator, Xi Jinping. These include military cooperation, mutual moves to evade U.S. sanctions, brisk sales of Russian oil to China—and though Putin and Xi are coy on some topics, we might reasonably guess their secret talks might have included how to coordinate moves to hamper the U.S. from riding to the rescue should Xi make a military grab to seize Taiwan.

This arrest is going to deter American reporters—or Western reporters generally—from attempts to report inside Russia. This had already become highly risky even before the arrest of Gershkovich. Last year, Putin signed a law threatening up to 15 years in prison for anyone who spreads what Russian authorities deem “false news” about the Russian military.

The smothering effect of all this is similar to the climate Xi Jinping has created inside China, where surveillance, censorship and threats have largely kenneled or cut off the Western press. While China and Russia increasingly threaten the U.S. and our democratic allies, we have ever less access to information from inside these countries; their propaganda dominates the field.

So, the Gershkovich arrest adds up to a sweet deal for Putin. It’s terrible news for America. Clearly it is brutal for Gershkovich himself. Even if there’s a ransom deal likely in the misty future, precedent with prisoners suggests that Russia will put him through hell.

What America needs are much more powerful and credible powers of deterrence—enough so that Putin, or the dictators and security thugs of his fellow tyrants in such axis-of-evil countries as China, or Iran, do not consider the likely gains of abusing Americans worth the risk.

What’s needed from Washington—though right now we’re not seeing anything of the kind—is a rapidly and powerfully built up U.S. military, eloquent and wise leadership encouraging pride in our country, and the backbone to skip the waffling and appeasement that has been a signature of the Biden years. There is an ever more urgent need for America’s leaders to stand up to our enemies, and defend our rights and freedoms.