The Kremlin acknowledged for the first time on Tuesday that “contact” with U.S. officials had begun over imprisoned Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who has been incarcerated since March on what the Biden administration calls trumped-up espionage charges.
US Ambassador to Russia Lynne Tracy was granted a consular visit to the jailed journalist on Monday amid speculation of a possible exchange with Vladimir Dunaev, a Russian citizen detained in Ohio on cybercrime charges.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Russian government spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed the talks but declined to provide details.
“We said there were some contacts on the subject, but we don’t want them to be discussed in public,” Peskov said in a conference call with reporters. “They must be executed and proceed in complete silence.”
The reluctance fits the Russian pattern – a similar trade by WNBA star Brittney Griner for Russian arms deal Viktor Bout in December was only confirmed by the Kremlin shortly before it was completed.
Mr. Gershkovich was arrested in the city of Yekaterinburg while on a reporting trip to Russia. He is being held in the notorious Lefortovo prison in Moscow and has been taken into custody by a Moscow court until at least August 30.
He is the first accredited American journalist working in Russia to be accused of espionage since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Nadezhda Shumova, head of the Russian embassy’s consular section, told the country’s official TASS news agency that Mr Dunaev had also secured a consular visit from a Russian diplomat in recent days for the first time since his arrest in 2021 in South Korea and his extradition. in the USA
Mr. Peskov’s cryptic comments were the first indication that a real negotiation might be underway to secure Mr. Gershkovich’s release. Roger Carstens, President Biden’s special envoy for hostage cases, told the Aspen Ideas Forum last week that there was so far no discussion of the journalist’s release, despite Washington’s denials. that he was a spy.
“The Russians, however, played a tough game,” Mr Carstens said. “They don’t really want to talk to us about him yet.”
The White House was also very tight-lipped about any negotiations.
“While we unfortunately don’t have a breakthrough to share, we continue to explore all avenues to secure the release of Evan Gershkovich and fellow American Paul Whelan,” a US official told the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday.
Mr Whelan, a Michigan corporate security company executive and former US Marine, is serving a 16-year sentence in Russia for espionage in 2020. Repeated efforts to arrange a prisoner exchange for him have been unsuccessful.
Separately, Russian President Vladimir Putin made his first international appearance – via video – since the Wagner Group mercenary force mutiny rocked his government late last month. The Russian leader tried to project an image of strength in his remarks during a virtual gathering of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a China-founded security group for countries in Central, East and South Asia.
Following the near-coup, Mr Putin told SCO leaders: “The Russian people are united as never before.”
“Solidarity and responsibility for the fate of the fatherland have been clearly demonstrated by Russian political circles and the whole of society by presenting themselves as a united front against the attempted armed rebellion,” he added.
He thanked SCO members for what he said was their support in the face of the Wagner Group’s revolt, but other leaders, including host Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and Chinese President Xi Jinping , ignored the coup and the state of the war in Ukraine in their own remarks to the group.
• This article is based in part on reports from the telegraph services.