Russia could consider the possibility of a prisoner exchange for jailed Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich only after a Russian court renders a verdict on an espionage allegation against the 31-year-old American, according to a senior Russian official.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the state news agency TASS on Thursday that “the issue of exchanging anyone can be considered after the court issues its verdict specifically on a particular charge,” he said.
Ryabkov also said that any talks to swap Gershkovich, as well as Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine serving a 16-year sentence for espionage, would use a channel that Moscow and Washington tapped in the past for such talks.
“We have a special channel for this, the special services are engaged in this, and they will continue to deal with this issue,” Ryabkov said, according to TASS.
The official also said that there would be no need for the involvement of a third country in such talks.
The senior diplomat’s comments were the most extensive yet from the Russian side over the possibility of a prisoner swap for Gershkovich, who was detained on March 29 by Russia’s Federal Security Service while he was on a reporting trip in the city of Yekaterinburg and subsequently charged with espionage.
In Russia, legal proceedings, including pretrial detention and the actual trial, can sometimes stretch for more than a year.
The Journal and the U.S. government vehemently deny the allegation and have called for the immediate release of the reporter, who was accredited to work as a journalist in Russia by the country’s foreign ministry at the time of his detention.
The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday. A spokeswoman for the Journal declined to comment.
President Joe Biden has called Gershkovich’s detention “totally illegal.” On Monday, the State Department designated the reporter as “wrongfully detained,” launching a broad U.S. government effort to exert pressure on Russia to free him.
Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs who will now lead the efforts to free Gershkovich, said in an interview with ABC earlier this week that the administration has “begun in earnest to start sketching out what negotiations might look like, but we’ve yet to get together with them to discuss how we’re going to make this happen and get it done.”
The U.S. is also pressing Russia to allow American Embassy officials to visit Gershkovich, an undertaking Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said earlier this week would happen “in due time in line with the consular practices and Russian legislation.”
The U.S. faces a challenge in striking prisoner exchange deals for Americans held in Russia, with release often resting on identifying Russians prisoners—possibly in third countries—for whom they can be swapped. Former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed and basketball star Brittney Griner were swapped for Russians convicted of crimes in the U.S. It is unclear who might provide a match for Gershkovich and Whelan.
Carstens said this week that the administration has “a significant offer on the table” for a swap that would free Whelan, whom the U.S. government also has designated as wrongfully detained.
Securing such an agreement is particularly tough now that U.S.-Russia relations have fallen to lows not seen since the Cold War. Recent years have seen tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions by the two nations, and communications between Moscow and Washington are severely constrained.
Zakharova said Wednesday that the “noise” created by the U.S. over a potential prisoner swap for Gershkovich wouldn’t help.
On Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov repeated Moscow’s claim that Gershkovich was “caught red-handed,” without providing details of any evidence against the reporter. He also rejected a report by the Bloomberg news agency that Russian President Vladimir Putin had personally signed off on the decision of Russian authorities to detain and arrest Gershkovich.
“This is not the president’s prerogative,” Peskov told reporters at a briefing. “This is done by special services, they are doing their job.”
Ryabkov told TASS that consultations between Russia and the U.S. on what he described as bilateral “irritant issues” weren’t yet scheduled. It was unclear whether he was referring to any prisoner swap for Messrs. Gershkovich and Whelan as being one of those issues.
This report originally appeared on WSJ.com.
• Detained reporter Evan Gershkovich loved Russia, the country that turned on him
• ‘Lefortovo is the most isolated place to be’: Inside the infamous Russian prison holding Evan Gershkovich
• How to support detained WSJ reporter Evan Gershkovich on social media