Russia Has Shown Scant Interest in Prisoner Swaps for Dozens Held in U.S. Prisons
WASHINGTON—Setbacks securing the release of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich and other Americans held in Russia through a trade for high-profile Russians locked up in other countries have forced U.S. officials to refocus on a deal involving Russian prisoners in U.S. custody.
One problem: it’s unclear that Russia wants any of them.
U.S. officials have identified several other allied countries that have detained Russians who have ties to Russian intelligence services or are otherwise valuable, but the Brazilian example underscores the complications for the U.S. when a third country is involved.
For example, Russia has made clear its interest in Vadim Krasikov, a Russian serving a life sentence in Germany for the murder of a former Chechen rebel leader. The German foreign minister has said the killing was “state-ordered”; the Kremlin has denied any involvement in the case.
A made-in-the-USA solution, by contrast, is entirely within the American government’s control, even if it carries some domestic political challenges. But while there are several potential prisoners in U.S. custody who could be trade prospects, U.S. officials say Russia hasn’t indicated a clear interest in negotiating for their release.
The U.S. government considers Gershkovich, as well as Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive, to be wrongfully detained in Russia, and says it is committed to bringing them home. It has also sought the release of another American, teacher Marc Fogel, on humanitarian grounds. A trade of Russian and American prisoners is seen by U.S. observers as the likeliest way any of the men will be freed.
Gershkovich, 31 years old, was accredited by Russia’s Foreign Ministry to work as a journalist when he was detained by agents from Russia’s Federal Security Service on a reporting trip on March 29. He is being held on an allegation of espionage that he, the Journal and the U.S. government vehemently deny. Washington has said Gershkovich isn’t a spy and has never worked for the government.
Meanwhile, 25 Russian citizens are serving time in federal prisons, according to Federal Bureau of Prisons data reviewed by the Journal, and Russian officials have suggested that as many as 35 more may be held in state prisons, or as suspects and defendants in pretrial detention.
U.S. officials say that they haven’t seen indications that Russia considers any of those to have particular value in a potential trade—but that Kremlin officials’ calculus could quickly change whenever they determine it is time to engage.
It is also possible, U.S. officials said, that Moscow would consider an asymmetrical deal, such as several hackers and other low-level criminals in exchange for Gershkovich and Whelan. The U.S. would be open to considering such a deal if it were ever on the table, U.S. officials said.
Discord ahead of 2024 vote
The U.S. officials said that Moscow appeared far more willing to negotiate for American basketball star Brittney Griner after the 2022 midterm elections. Some said they similarly thought Russian President Vladimir Putin
would be more likely to consider a swap for Gershkovich after the 2024 U.S. presidential contest, in order to continue to sow discord in the U.S. Griner, who had been sentenced to nine years in a penal colony following her conviction on charges of possessing less than a gram of hashish oil, was traded in December for Russian convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Last month, Estonia extradited to the U.S. a man accused of illegal munitions smuggling who U.S. officials say has ties to Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). Vadim Konoshchenok pleaded not guilty at a hearing where prosecutors argued that much of the evidence revealed in discovery should be kept secret, his lawyer said. The Russian embassy in Washington declined to comment on the allegation Konoshchenok is linked to the FSB.
Also last month, U.S. observers took note when a Kremlin spokesman publicly mentioned a Russian consular visit to Vladimir Dunaev, whom South Korea extradited to the U.S. in 2021. Dunaev has pleaded not guilty in Ohio to charges he launched cyberattacks on businesses, schools, banks and local governments across the globe. However, U.S. officials say they currently see scant indication Moscow wants to trade for him. His lawyer didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Another notable Russian hacker in U.S. possession is Vladislav Klyushin, whom Switzerland extradited to the U.S. in December 2021 on charges that he participated in a scheme to hack and steal nonpublic financial information about Tesla, Roku and others, and trade on it.
Federal prosecutors said Klyushin had “extensive ties to the office of the president of the Russian federation,”
Klyushin’s lawyers have said he isn’t a Russian agent. The embassy in Washington declined to comment on the allegation that he has ties to Putin.
Klyushin was found guilty in February and is awaiting sentencing in Boston, which is now expected in early September. He faces up to 30 years, and a hefty prison sentence could pique the Kremlin’s attention to his case, U.S. officials said.
The U.S. has previously offered to trade to Russia