Russia says awaits US response to prisoner swap proposals

Gershkovich was arrested in March 2023 on espionage charges rejected by his employer as false (NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA)
Gershkovich was arrested in March 2023 on espionage charges rejected by his employer as false (NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA)

Russia said Wednesday it had presented its ideas for a prisoner swap to the United States and was waiting for a response, days before it was set to put US reporter Evan Gershkovich on trial.

Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter, was arrested in March 2023 on espionage charges rejected as false by his family, employer and the White House.

President Vladimir Putin said in February that talks on a prisoner swap involving the journalist were under way, but the Kremlin has not given any details on the progress of the negotiations.

"The ball is in the court of the United States, we are waiting for them to respond to the ideas that were presented to them," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Russia's state TASS news agency in an interview.

"They are well known to the relevant parts of the US administration. I understand that, perhaps, something in these ideas does not suit the Americans. That's their problem," he added.

"We consider our approaches to be fully justified, sensible, balanced. We expect that this is how they will view them."

Gershkovich is set to face a closed-door trial in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg on June 26 and could face up to 20 years in prison if found guilty.

He became the first Western journalist to be jailed on espionage charges since the Soviet era.

Gershkovich is one of several Americans held in Russia.

A court in Russia's far east on Wednesday jailed a US soldier for three years and nine months after convicting him for having threatened to kill his girlfriend and for stealing from her.

Gordon Black, 34, was arrested last month in the far eastern city of Vladivostok, where he was visiting a Russian woman he met and dated while serving in South Korea.

- 'Not a priority' -

The woman, named by Russian media as Alexandra Vashuk, accused Black of stealing some 10,000 rubles ($120) from her and said she had been physically attacked.

Black had pleaded "partially guilty" to theft and not guilty to threatening to kill Vashuk, Russian media reported.

His lawyer intends to appeal the verdict, the TASS news agency reported.

The US State Department said Wednesday it was aware of the reports but did not comment on the specifics of the case.

"We reiterate our strong warnings about the danger posed to US citizens inside the Russian Federation. US citizens residing or travelling in Russia should depart immediately," a State Department spokesperson said.

Washington has accused Moscow of arresting its citizens on baseless charges to use them as bargaining chips to secure the release of Russians convicted abroad.

The Kremlin has signalled it is open to a deal on exchanging some of them if its conditions are met.

But it has not revealed details. Putin has suggested a deal may involve the release of a Russian jailed in Germany for killing a Chechen dissident.

Among other US nationals detained in Russia is reporter Alsu Kurmasheva, a dual US-Russian national arrested last year for failing to register as a "foreign agent". Her employers denounced the case against her as politically motivated.

Former US marine Paul Whelan, in prison in Russia since 2018 and serving a 16-year sentence on espionage charges, is also pushing to be included in any future exchange.

His family said Wednesday that he had been in prison for 2,000 days, completing a third of his sentence.

US efforts to free him had been disappointing, they said.

"Paul's case does not appear to be a priority," the family said in a statement.

While the family said it was grateful for support from the US embassy in Moscow, it said it was disappointed by the "weak White House support".