Putin hints at swapping US reporter Gershkovich for Russian assassin

Vladimir Putin on Thursday said he believed “an agreement can be reached” to free imprisoned US journalist Evan Gershkovich, suggesting he would swap him for a Russian assassin serving a life sentence in Germany.

Russia’s president compared Gershkovich’s imprisonment in Moscow to “a person serving a sentence in an allied country of the US”, a likely reference to Vadim Krasikov, who killed a former Chechen rebel Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in Berlin’s Tiergarten park in 2019. US officials have said Russia has raised his case in prisoner swap negotiations.

Putin appeared to hint that Krasikov, who German prosecutors have said likely carried out the hit for Russia’s FSB security service, was acting on Moscow’s orders, despite earlier denials.

“There was a patriot who eliminated [Khangoshvili] in one of the European capitals. Whether he did it of his own volition or not. That is a different question,” Putin said.

His comments came in an interview in the Kremlin with conservative commentator Tucker Carlson, the first he has given to western media since ordering the invasion of Ukraine two years ago.

They were the most concrete description yet of Russia’s conditions to release Gershkovich, a 32-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter who has been jailed for almost a year on espionage charges. The US government and the paper reject the charges and describe them as completely false.

“I do not rule out that the person you refer to, Mr Gershkovich, may return to his motherland,” Putin said. “We want the US special services to think about how they can contribute to achieving the goals our special services are pursuing.”

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Putin’s claims.

Another US journalist, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reporter Alsu Kurmasheva, is also being held in Russia after being arrested last year. Kurmasheva, who is also a Russian citizen, is accused of violating a law on “foreign agents” and may face additional charges.

US Marine veteran Paul Whelan was convicted of espionage charges in Russia in 2020, which he and the US vehemently deny, and is serving a 16-year sentence in a rural prison colony.

Gershkovich was detained by Russia’s FSB in March 2023 while he was on a reporting assignment in the city of Ekaterinburg. At the time of his arrest, he had press credentials from Russia’s foreign ministry.

Russian state media had promoted the interview ever since Carlson, who has become a star in Russia after making sympathetic comments about Putin, was first spotted at the Bolshoi ballet earlier this week.

The Kremlin said Carlson had secured the interview because his stance was “different from traditional Anglo-Saxon media” it claims are biased against Russia.

By granting the rare meeting to Carlson, who has broadcast his programme on Elon Musk’s social media platform X since being fired from Fox News last year, the Kremlin appeared to hope it could reach sympathetic audiences ahead of the US election.

Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, who Carlson is backing in the White House race, frequently spoke of his admiration for Putin while in office and has torpedoed attempts in Congress to pass more US military aid for Ukraine.

Although Carlson had promised his audience they would hear a Russian point of view normally held from them by western media, Putin offered a grab bag of the rants, paranoia, and grievances he has frequently aired since launching the war.

His answer to Carlson’s first question lasted 36 minutes and covered the past thousand years of Ukraine’s history with Russia. He proffered a thick folder full of letters written by Bohdan Khmelnytsky, a 17th century Cossack leader.

Putin repeated familiar grievances against the US, which he blamed for forcing him to order the invasion of Ukraine.

He said he had told US President Joe Biden shortly before the war began that “you are making a huge mistake of historic proportions by supporting everything that is happening there, in Ukraine, by pushing Russia away”.

Putin added that the war could be ended quickly if the US and its western allies stopped arming Ukraine, and dismissed fears that he could use a nuclear weapon or start a global conflict with the west if the war in Ukraine did not go Russia’s way.

“They’re trying to intimidate their own population with an imaginary Russian threat,” Putin said. “Tomorrow, Russia will use tactical nuclear weapons. Tomorrow Russia will use that. No, the day after tomorrow. So what.”

Putin also dismissed US attempts to inflict a strategic defeat on Russia or weaken its economy through sanctions aimed at isolating the country and cutting off supply chains for its war machine.

He said Russia’s burgeoning trade relationship with China meant US hegemony and the dollar’s role as global reserve currency were on the wane.

“You cannot prevent the sun from rising. You have to adapt to it,” Putin said. “Your political establishment does not understand that the world is changing under objective circumstances. [ . . . ] Such brutal actions, including with regard to Russia and say other countries, are counterproductive.”

US officials played down the interview before it aired. “Remember, you’re listening to Vladimir Putin. And you shouldn’t take at face value anything he has to say,” US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said earlier on Thursday.

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