Russia may be willing to discuss a potential prisoner swap with the US that would include jailed Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich following his trial on espionage charges, a top Russian diplomat said on Thursday.
Gershkovich, 31, his employer and the US government deny he was involved in espionage and have demanded his release.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the state news agency Tass that negotiations on a possible exchange could take place through a specialized channel set up for this purpose by Russian and US security agencies.
“We have a functioning channel that has been used in the past to reach specific agreements, and those agreements have been fulfilled,” Ryabkov said, adding that there was no need to involve any third country.
However, he emphasized that Moscow will only discuss a possible exchange of prisoners after the trial.
“The issue of exchanging anyone could only be considered after the court has given its verdict,” he said, according to the Tass news agency.
This practice is consistent with previous cases where Russian authorities have insisted on the completion of legal proceedings before considering exchanges.
It is unclear how long the investigation may take, but other espionage cases have lasted a year or more.
In December, American basketball star Brittney Griner was traded for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout following her trial and conviction on drug possession charges. She was sentenced to nine years in prison and ended up spending 10 months behind bars.
Another American, Michigan corporate security chief Paul Whelan, has been imprisoned in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the US government have called unfounded.
During the Griner case, the Kremlin repeatedly urged the United States to use a “special channel” to discuss and work on a potential prisoner exchange, saying such private communications were the only appropriate means of resolution, rather than public statements and speculation.
Gershkovich faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted. Russian lawyers said past espionage investigations lasted between a year and 18 months, during which time he may have had little contact with the outside world. A Moscow court has received an appeal against his arrest and it is scheduled for April 18.
At a panel discussion on the case at Columbia University in New York on Wednesday, the paper’s editor-in-chief Elena Cherney said that the Journal’s lawyers had visited Gershkovich three times, that he appeared to be in good spirits and healthy, and that he had been receiving updates on one of his favorite soccer teams, Arsenal.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken this month urged his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to secure the immediate release of both Gershkovich and Whelan.
President Joe Biden spoke to Greshkovich’s parents on Tuesday and again condemned his detention. “We’re making it clear that it’s totally illegal what’s going on, and we’ve said it that way,” he said.
On Monday, the U.S. government declared Gershkovich “wrongfully detained,” a designation that means a specific State Department agency is taking the lead in seeking his release.
Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, arrested Gershkovich in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, on March 29. He is the first American correspondent since the Cold War to be detained in Russia for alleged espionage.
The FSB, the successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB, accused Gershkovic of trying to obtain classified information about a Russian arms factory.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Thursday reiterated Moscow’s claim that Gershkovich was caught red-handed. He denied reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin had personally approved Gershkovich’s arrest.
“It is not a prerogative of the president. It’s up to the special services that do their job,” Peskov said in a conference call with reporters.
The US urged Russian authorities to allow Gershkovich US consular access. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Wednesday that Moscow would provide it “in a timely manner in accordance with consular practice and Russian legislation.”
Gershkovich is being held in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, which dates back to the tsarist era and is a terrifying symbol of repression since Soviet times.
Whelan was also held at Lefort until he was sent to another prison to serve his 16-year sentence after his conviction in 2020.
The Wall Street Journal launched a campaign to support Gershkovich, offering the public a way to send him letters through its website. Journal editorial staff posted photos of themselves wearing #IStandWithEvan t-shirts.
“We need to make sure that Evan and his wrongful detention and the effort to get him back stays in the public mind and doesn’t fade with the news cycle,” Cherney said in explaining the campaign’s goal at Wednesday’s event in Columbia. “What we’re doing is making sure we get these messages to Evan,” she added. “We’re doing what we can to keep his spirits up as well.”