US soldier jailed for nearly four years in Russia after love story turns sour

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia (Reuters) -A U.S. soldier was sentenced on Wednesday to nearly four years in a Russian penal colony after being found guilty by a Russian court of stealing $113 from his girlfriend and making threats to kill her, a Reuters witness reported from the courtroom.

The judgement brings an end to a tempestuous love story that brought together - and then tore apart - a married U.S. staff sergeant and a Russian woman after an international romance that stretched from South Korea to Russia.

Gordon Black, a 34-year-old U.S. staff sergeant, was detained on May 2 in Russia's far eastern city of Vladivostok after an argument with his girlfriend, Alexandra Vashchuk, whom he had met while in South Korea.

Judge Yelena Stepankova of the Pervomaisky District Court of Vladivostok found Black guilty of stealing 10,000 roubles ($113) from Vashchuk's purse and threatening to kill her.

"The court found that Black G. K. in the period from 05/01/2024 to 05/02/2024, while in an apartment on Sakhalinskaya Street in Vladivostok, during a quarrel that arose on the basis of personal hostility, threatened to kill the victim," the court said.

He "also committed theft," the court said.

Black, standing in a glass cage in the court room, was sentenced to three years and nine months in a Russian penal colony and ordered to pay back the 10,000 roubles.

He pleaded not guilty to threatening to kill her but admitted he was partially guilty of taking the money, though out of necessity. His defence lawyer will appeal the verdict.

Prosecutors said that during an argument at Vashchuk's apartment, Black had grabbed her by the neck and then took the money. Black argued that Vashchuk had drunk half a bottle of vodka that day, was aggressive and had struck him.

Prosecutors had asked for a prison sentence of four years and eight months, while the defence asked for Black to be acquitted of all charges.

Vashchuk did not come to the court on Wednesday. Before they fell out, she had previously referred to Black on social media as her "husband" and affectionately as "pindos", a Russian slang word for Americans that roughly translates to "Yankee punk."

Black in April signed out of the Eighth Army at Camp Humphreys in the Republic of South Korea on a permanent change of station to return to Fort Cavazos in Texas, but instead he flew to China and then to Russia to meet Vashchuk.

The Pentagon has said that he broke army rules by travelling to Russia and China without authorisation.

Black has a wife and child in Texas. His wife Megan told Reuters last month that he and Vashchuk had a tempestuous relationship.

Black's mother, Melody Jones, told Reuters he had followed his girlfriend to Russia even though they "fought like cats and dogs".

Russia is holding at least a dozen American citizens in jail, including Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who will go on trial behind closed door on charges of espionage next week. Gershkovich has denied the charges of collecting secrets for the U.S. CIA.

U.S. President Joe Biden says he is doing all he can to bring back the Americans held in Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin says contacts over a possible swap involving Gershkovich have taken place but the Kremlin has repeatedly warned Washington that such talks need to take place without media publicity.

The U.S. State Department advises against all travel to Russia, which it ranks as a maximum danger alongside countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, Iran and Sudan.

($1 = 85.2455 roubles)

(Writing by Lidia Kelly in Melbourne and Guy Faulconbridge in Moscow; Editing by Christopher Cushing and Michael Perry and Miral Fahmy)