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Putin says Russia is in dialogue with the US on exchanging jailed Americans Gershkovich and Whelan

U.S. State Department said the Washington has “put multiple offers on the table,” but that ‘so far we’ve seen them refuse to take us up on our proposals’

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich
Evan Gershkovich stands inside an enclosure for defendants before a court hearing to consider an appeal against his pre-trial detention on espionage charges in Moscow, Russia, September 19, 2023.EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA (REUTERS)

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday Moscow is in dialogue with the United States on the issue of bringing home jailed Americans Paul Whelan and Evan Gershkovich and the Kremlin hopes to “find a solution,” even though “it’s not easy.”

Putin spoke about Whelan and Gershkovich during his year-end press conference in response to a question about a recent offer the Biden administration made to secure the two men’s release. The U.S. State Department reported it earlier this month, without offering details, and said Russia rejected it.

Putin said Moscow is not refusing to send the two Americans back home, and he asked somewhat rhetorically in passing: “Why wouldn’t they not commit offenses on Russian soil?”

“We have contacts on this matter with our American partners, there’s a dialogue on this issue. It’s not easy, I won’t go into details right now. But in general, it seems to me that we’re speaking a language each of us understands,” he continued. “I hope we will find a solution. But, I repeat, the American side must hear us and make a decision that will satisfy the Russian side as well.”

Speaking to reporters in Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said the U.S. has “put multiple offers on the table,” including “one significant offer that we made as recently as a few weeks ago.” “We have seen those offers rejected every time by the Russian government,” he said.

Miller said Washington would welcome Russia engaging seriously in talks that would lead to the release of Gershkovich and Whelan but that “so far we’ve seen them refuse to take us up on our proposals, and we hope that they will change the way they handle this going forward.”

Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan, has been jailed in Russia since his December 2018 arrest on espionage-related charges that both he and the U.S. government dispute. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter, was detained in March while on a reporting trip to the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, about 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) east of Moscow. He was accused of espionage — Russia’s Federal Security Service alleged that the reporter, “acting on the instructions of the American side, collected information constituting a state secret about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex.” He has been behind bars ever since.

The Lefortovo District Court in Moscow on Nov. 28 ruled to extend his detention until the end of January, and the appeal Gershkovich has filed against that ruling was rejected by the Moscow City Court at a hearing Thursday.

Gershkovich and the Journal deny the allegations, and the U.S. government has declared him to be wrongfully detained. Russian authorities haven’t detailed any evidence to support the espionage charges.

Gershkovich is the first American reporter to be charged with espionage in Russia since 1986, when Nicholas Daniloff, a Moscow correspondent for U.S. News and World Report, was arrested by the KGB. He is being held at Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, notorious for its harsh conditions.

Analysts have pointed out that Moscow may be using jailed Americans as bargaining chips after U.S.-Russian tensions soared when Russia sent troops into Ukraine. At least two U.S. citizens arrested in Russia in recent years — including WNBA star Brittney Griner — have been exchanged for Russians jailed in the U.S.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has said it will consider a swap for Gershkovich only after a verdict in his trial. In Russia, espionage trials can last for more than a year.

Lynne Tracy, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, attended the court hearing for Gershkovich’s appeal on Thursday and told reporters that “Evan’s ordeal has now stretched on for over 250 days. His life has been put on hold for over eight months for a crime he didn’t commit.”

“Although Evan appeared as sharp and focused as ever today in the courtroom, it is not acceptable that Russian authorities have chosen to use him as a political pawn,” Tracy said after the hearing.

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