Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich could be released back to the US in a prisoner swap with one of five Russian “cybercriminals” in a US jail after the Kremlin hinted talks about a secret exchange.
If an exchange were to take place, they reaffirmed that such talks must be “kept out of public view.”
Gershkovich has been held behind bars in Moscow since March on espionage charges.
USA, The Wall Street Journal and Gershkovich deny the espionage allegations. He is the first Western journalist detained in Russia since the Soviet era.
Suspected Russian cybercriminals Roman Seleznyov, Vladislav Klyushin, Aleksandr Vinnik, Denis Dubnikov and Vladimir Dunaev are serving time in US prisons and one could be sent back to Moscow in a prisoner exchange with Gershkovich.
At a press conference today, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “We have said that there have been some contacts on the subject, but we don’t want them to be discussed in public.” They must be carried out and continue in complete silence.’
Gershkovich, pictured here, lies in a glass cage in a Moscow City Courtroom in Moscow, Russia, on Thursday, June 22, 2023.
Vladimir Putin meets with alumni of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA) at the Kremlin in Moscow on July 4, 2023.
For the first time since April, US Ambassador to Moscow Lynne Tracy was allowed to visit Gershkovich on Monday after Russia twice refused requests to see him.
The 31-year-old man was arrested in the city of Yekaterinburg while on an information tour and is being held in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, known for its harsh conditions.
A State Department spokesman said after Monday’s visit: “Ambassador Tracy reports that Mr. Gershkovich is in good health and remains strong, despite his circumstances.”
Moscow and Washington are said to have raised the issue of exchanging Gershkovich for Vladimir Dunaev.
Gershkovich’s arrest in the city of Yekaterinburg concerned journalists in Russia, where authorities have not detailed what, if any, evidence they have gathered to support the spying charges.
Russian national Dunaev was extradited to the US from South Korea in 2021, where he faces charges in connection with his alleged role in a transnational cybercriminal organization.
He has pleaded not guilty to various charges of conspiracy, wire fraud and identity theft.
According to court documents, the 38-year-old man was a member of a transnational cybercriminal organization.
Four other accused Russian cybercriminals could be considered for a prisoner exchange with Gershkovich.
Roman Seleznyov, the son of Valery Seleznyov, a member of Russia’s lower house of parliament, is serving a 27-year sentence for cybercrimes, including selling stolen US credit card details, according to RadioFreeEurope.
Vladislav Klyushin, 41, was extradited to the United States on December 18 on charges of being part of a group that hacked into networks to steal sensitive corporate data and use the information to trade stocks.
Aleksandr Vinnik, 43, also known as ‘Mr. Bitcoin’, was extradited to the United States on August 5 to face money laundering charges.
And Denis Dubnikov, 29, was extradited to the United States earlier this year on charges of laundering cryptocurrency linked to a notorious ransomware gang.
Gershkovich is the first American reporter to face espionage charges in Russia since September 1986, when Nicholas Daniloff, the Moscow correspondent for US News and World Report, was arrested by the KGB.
Daniloff was freed 20 days later in a trade for a UN mission employee from the Soviet Union who was arrested by the FBI, also on espionage charges.
Two weeks ago, a Moscow court rejected an appeal by Gershkovich and upheld an earlier ruling that he should remain in jail until the end of August.
Wearing a black T-shirt and light blue jeans, Gershkovich looked tense and walked inside a glass cage for defendants as he waited for the hearing to begin at the Moscow City Court.
If convicted, the journalist faces a sentence of up to 20 years.
After Gershkovich’s hearing in June, WSJ editor-in-chief Emma Tucker told the BBC that her expectations were low.
“If I’m completely honest, we don’t expect any of this to come up, but it’s very, very important to go through the process,” he said.
Tucker said the “really horrible” thing about the Gershkovich case was that it had become part of the geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the United States.
‘Whatever it takes to get Evan out is going to be a very complicated puzzle. To be honest, the US government doesn’t have that much influence anymore, it’s essentially helping Russia’s enemy to wage war against it.
“So things are difficult,” he said.
Along with Gershkovich, the US has also been advocating for the release of Paul Whelan, a former US Marine who has been in prison for more than four years.
Paul Whelan, a former US Marine accused of spying and arrested in Russia, stands inside the defendant’s cage during a Moscow court hearing in 2019.
Paul Whelan has been held in a Russian penal colony since December 2018, when he was arrested on a trip to Moscow.
Whelan is in Mordovia, an area southeast of Moscow known for harsh conditions in its prison camps.
He has been held in a Russian penal colony since December 2018, when he was arrested on a trip to Moscow. He was convicted two years later on espionage charges and sentenced to 16 years in a maximum security prison.
US officials believe those charges are false, but Whelan is still in jail where he has lost about 20 percent of his body weight, his brother David revealed in an interview with Good Morning America in December.
Whelan’s family originally hoped the Biden administration could broker a deal to release him at the same time as American basketball star Brittney Griner, who was freed in December after spending 10 months in a Russian penal colony.
David fears that his brother may be held captive by another 12 years in the penal colony.
Brittney Griner was released from a Russian penal colony after the Biden administration was able to reach an agreement with the Kremlin on a prisoner exchange.
Griner landed in the US state of Texas in December (pictured), footage broadcast on CNN and Fox News showed, after being released from a Russian prison in exchange for a notorious arms dealer.
Suspected Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout, center, is led by armed Thai police commandos as he arrives at the criminal court in Bangkok, Thailand, October 5, 2010. Russia released WNBA star Brittney Griner on Thursday in a dramatic high-level prisoner. exchange, with the United States releasing notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout
The Biden administration insisted that Putin left them the choice of bringing home Griner or no one in the exchange with Bout, who was serving a 25-year sentence in a maximum-security US prison for trying to sell weapons to Colombian rebel groups.
Bout has also been linked to trying to sell weapons to the Taliban and al Qaeda and was a former intelligence officer in the Soviet Union.
The Pentagon has reportedly expressed concern that it could resume arms dealing now that it is back in its home country and Republicans have said the deal means Americans could be detained abroad simply so adversaries can participate in a prisoner exchange.
Gershkovich and Whelan are not the only Americans trapped in a Russian jail; David Barnes, 65, of Texas, was arrested in Moscow in January 2022 on charges of abusing his children in the United States.
Barnes traveled to Moscow in December 2021 to win the right to see her children or bring them back home.
Marc Fogel, a 60-year-old English teacher, was arrested at a Moscow airport in 2021 for carrying around half an ounce of medical marijuana.
He was sentenced to 14 years in a penal colony after prosecutors claimed he intended to sell the drugs to his students.