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Germany cools on Russian prisoner swap after Navalny death

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Germany’s appetite for a potential deal with the Kremlin to swap a Russian hitman in a prisoner exchange has cooled markedly since the death of Alexei Navalny, according to US and German officials.

The Russian opposition leader’s allies said on Monday that Navalny, who died in prison earlier this month at 47, was about to be freed from prison on the eve of his death and accused Putin of having him killed to torpedo the exchange.

A deal would have involved the release of Vadim Krasikov, a Russian national who was sentenced to life in prison by a German court three years ago for the murder of a former Chechen rebel in Berlin in 2019.

But a German official said Navalny’s death made the likelihood of such a swap far less likely. Germany, like other western countries, has said that Putin is responsible for the Russian opposition leader’s death. A spokesperson for Chancellor Olaf Scholz declined to comment.

Russian President Vladimir Putin hinted in his interview with the conservative commentator Tucker Carlson earlier this month that Russia might be prepared to release Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter who has been in jail for almost a year on espionage charges, in exchange for Krasikov.

People familiar with the matter said there had been “discussions” in recent weeks for Russia to release Gershkovich, Navalny and US veteran Paul Whelan in return for Krasikov. But with Navalny now dead, the people said, Berlin’s interest in a deal had waned.

“They no longer have anyone in mind they feel it would be worth swapping a state-sponsored murderer for,” a US official said. “They don’t have a poster child they’re looking to get out.”

In a video posted to YouTube on Monday, Maria Pevchikh, board chair of Navalny’s foundation, said she had “received confirmation that negotiations were at the final stage” on an exchange the day before Russia’s prison service announced the activist’s death earlier this month.

Pevchikh said Putin “had been offered” to swap Navalny and two US citizens for Krasikov at the beginning of February. Roman Abramovich, the former Chelsea FC owner who has been an important intermediary negotiating prisoner swaps during the war in Ukraine, passed on the proposal, she said.

“Putin was clearly told that the only way to get Krasikov is to exchange him for Navalny. ‘Hold on,’ thought Putin. ‘I can’t tolerate Navalny being free. And since they are willing to exchange Krasikov on principle, then I just need to get rid of the bargaining chip and offer someone else when the time comes’,” Pevchikh said.

She described Putin’s behaviour as “absolutely irrational” and driven purely by hatred for Navalny, to the point that the president “acts against his own rational interests”.

Vadim Krasikov during his sentencing © Mika Savolainen/Pool/EPA-EFE

Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesperson, told the Financial Times: “I am not aware of such agreements.”

After Navalny’s death, the Kremlin accepting a swap involving Krasikov was less likely, said a person close to Abramovich.

“The situation with Krasikov has gotten much worse. It’ll be difficult to fit him into any arrangement,” the person said. “They’ll have to do a deal for someone else. I don’t think the Germans will do it.”

A spokesperson for Abramovich did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Russian President Vladimir Putin being interviewed by Tucker Carlson © Gavriil Grigorov/Sputnik/Kremlin/Reuters

Krasikov was convicted of killing Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a Georgian citizen of Chechen ethnicity, in Berlin’s Tiergarten park in 2019. The judge in the case said Krasikov had “acted on the orders of the Russian central government” and accused Moscow of “state terrorism”.

In the interview with Carlson, Putin appeared to acknowledge that the hit had been carried out at the behest of the Kremlin, calling Krasikov a “patriot” and suggesting that Russia’s “special services” were trying to get him released.

US officials said the fact that Krasikov had apparently assassinated Khanghoshvili on German soil on the Russian authorities’ orders made it difficult for Berlin to consider releasing him. Annalena Baerbock, the German foreign minister, described the killing at the time of Krasikov’s conviction as a “serious breach of German law and Germany’s sovereignty”.

But the inclusion of Navalny in discussions about a potential swap had made it much more palatable to Scholz’s government, officials said. Navalny had a large following in Germany and received medical treatment in Berlin’s Charité hospital in 2020 after being poisoned with the nerve agent novichok while campaigning in Siberia.

The US has said Gershkovich is “wrongfully detained” and demanded his release. He was detained by Russia’s FSB domestic intelligence service in March 2023 while on a reporting assignment in the city of Ekaterinburg.

A spokesperson for The Wall Street Journal said: “We know the US government is taking seriously the efforts to free Evan, and we cannot comment further.”

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.

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