American journalist Evan Gershkovich, detained in Russia on charges of espionage, is escorted out of the Lefortovsky Court building in Moscow on January 26, 2024.
Alexander Nemenov | afp | fake images
Russian President Vladimir Putin said “a deal can be reached” on the release of detained Wall Street Journal journalist Evan Gershkovich, indicating he is open to an exchange for a Russian prisoner serving time in Germany.
Putin’s comments on Tuesday were translated by the team of former Fox News journalist Tucker Carlson, who conducted the Kremlin leader’s first interview with Western media since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The extensive The two-hour exchange, which was published on Thursday, also covered Putin’s views on history, the origins of the war in Ukraine, geopolitics and artificial intelligence.
Putin did not openly request an exchange, but indirectly compared the case of Gershkovich, 32, with that of “a person serving a sentence in a country allied to the United States” who “out of patriotic feelings, eliminated a bandit in one of the European capitals.”
This is a likely reference to Vadim Krasikov, a Russian hitman who was convicted by a German court of killing former Chechen dissident Zelimkhan Khangoshvili with several shots at close range in Berlin in August 2019.
In Krasikov’s indictment, German prosecutors concluded that the crime was “committed on behalf of the state authorities of the Russian Federation,” according to a statement translated by Google.
“Whether he did it of his own free will or not. That’s a different question,” Putin said Thursday of the anonymous killer.
“At the end of the day, there is no point in continuing [Gershkovich] in prison in Russia. We want the US Special Services to think about how they can contribute to achieving the goals that our special services pursue. “We are ready to talk,” Putin said, repeatedly indicating that negotiations over the journalist’s future were underway.
The Wall Street Journal strongly denies espionage charges brought against Gershkovich, the newspaper’s Russia correspondent, and says he was in Yekaterinburg on a legitimate reporting trip before he was imprisoned in March 2023.
Washington and Moscow are no strangers to prisoner exchanges. In December 2022, American basketball player Brittney Griner, convicted in Russia for drug smuggling, was freed in exchange for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer arrested in Thailand and extradited to the United States.
“Evan Gershkovich should never have been detained in the first place. Russia should immediately release Evan and Paul Whelan,” a U.S. State Department spokesperson told CNBC via email. Whelan is a former US Marine who was imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges and sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020.
Germany’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a CNBC request for comment on whether Berlin would be open to a prisoner exchange deal.
Putin maintains that Gershkovich, whose pretrial detention was extended by two months at the end of January, was caught “red-handed” in the process of receiving confidential information in a “conspiratorial” manner. The Russian president admitted Thursday that he does not know which agency the journalist supposedly worked for.
“He was receiving classified and confidential information, and he did it covertly. Perhaps he did it inadvertently or on his own initiative,” Putin added.
The Wall Street Journal has repeatedly insisted that Gershkovich has not broken the law.
“Evan is a journalist and journalism is not a crime. Any description to the contrary is total fiction. Evan was unjustly arrested and has been unjustly detained by Russia for almost a year for doing his job, and we continue to demand his immediate release,” he said. the newspaper in response to Putin’s comments.
“We are encouraged to see Russia’s desire to reach an agreement that brings Evan home, and we hope this will lead to his quick release and his return to his family and our newsroom.”
Gershkovich is not the only journalist with ties to the United States facing the punitive wrath of the Kremlin justice system. Earlier this month, a Russian court extended the pretrial detention of Russian-American citizen Alsu Kurmasheva, a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reporter, accused of violating a law on “foreign agents,” according to Reuters.
Moscow has taken decisive action against journalists through a series of wartime censorship laws introduced shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Current policies criminalize discrediting the Russian military or deliberate disinformation about the war. As a result, several Western news outlets have closed local offices and withdrawn their reporters from Russia, citing security concerns.