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Russia says it may discuss prisoner swap involving American reporter, just not yet

Moscow would negotiate a possible prisoner exchange only after a court delivers its verdict in the espionage case against Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich.
/ Source: Associated Press

Russia may be willing to discuss a potential prisoner swap involving jailed Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich with the U.S. after a court delivers its verdict, a top Russian diplomat said Thursday.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told state news agency Tass that talks about a possible exchange could take place through a dedicated channel that Russian and U.S. security agencies established for such purposes.

“We have a working channel that was used in the past to achieve concrete agreements, and these agreements were fulfilled,” Ryabkov said, adding that there was no need for the involvement of any third country.

However, he emphasized that Moscow would only negotiate a possible prisoner exchange after a court delivers its verdict in the espionage case against Gershkovich, 31.

In December, American basketball star Brittney Griner was freed after 10 months behind bars in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Another American, Michigan corporate security executive Paul Whelan, has been imprisoned in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the U.S. government have called baseless.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, earlier this month to immediately secure the release of both Gershkovich and Whelan.

Russia’s Federal Security Service, the successor agency to the Soviet era KGB, arrested Gershkovich in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, on March 29. He is the first U.S. correspondent since the Cold War to be detained in Russia for alleged spying.

The Federal Security Service, known by its Russian acronym FSB, accused Gershkovich of trying to obtain classified information about a Russian arms factory. Both the U.S. government and Wall Street Journal have vehemently denied Russia’s allegation that Gershkovich is a spy.

A senior Russian diplomat said Moscow had suspended sharing information about its nuclear forces with the United States, including notices about missile tests.
Russian Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Ryabkov.Martial Trezzini / AP

On Monday, the U.S. government declared Gershkovich as “wrongfully detained,” a designation that means that a particular State Department office takes the lead on seeking his release.

President Joe Biden spoke to Gershkovich’s parents Tuesday and again condemned the journalist’s detention. “We’re making it real clear that it’s totally illegal what’s happening, and we declared it so,” the president said.

On Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov again emphasized Moscow’s claim that Gershkovich was caught red-handed. He denied reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin had personally sanctioned Gershkovich’s arrest.

“It’s not the president’s prerogative. It’s up to the special services, who are doing their job,” Peskov said in a conference call with reporters.

The U.S. has pressed Russian authorities to grant U.S. consular access to Gershkovich. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Wednesday that Moscow would provide it “in due time in line with the consular practices and Russian legislation.”