(JR) — Vladimir Putin said Russia hopes to reach an agreement to free Evan Gershkovich, the American Jewish journalist it imprisoned in March.
“It is not that we have refused to return them,” Putin told reporters in a produced four-hour news conference on Thursday, referring to Gershkovich and United States Marine Paul Whelan, who has been held in a Russian prison since 2018. “We want to reach an agreement, and these agreements must be mutually acceptable and must suit both sides.”
The statement was the Russian president’s first public comment on Gershkovich, 32, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was arrested on espionage charges that he, the United States and the Journal all vehemently deny. He has been in prison without trial for nearly nine months, and in November, his detainment was extended until at least Jan. 30. At a hearing on Thursday, that extension was upheld.
Gershkovich is the American-born son of Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union, and his case has drawn interest and support from Jews and Jewish organizations worldwide who are pushing for his release. Over Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish Federations of North America organized a letter-writing campaign for the Jewish new year, and last Passover, many families left an empty seat at their seder tables for him in his honor.
Efforts toward his release have focused on a prisoner swap, and the State Department revealed on Dec. 5 that it had made an offer to Russia to trade prisoners for Gershkovich and Whelan, but that the deal was turned down.
“In recent weeks, we made a new and significant proposal to secure Paul and Evan’s release,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters. “That proposal was rejected by Russia.”
At a holiday reception at the White House the following day, Biden said the American government is working daily to secure the release of Gershkovich, Whelan and Alsu Kurmasheva, a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalist and dual Russian-U.S. citizen.
“We’ve made a number of offers so far and we’re not giving up, we’re not giving up until we get them all home,” Biden said.
Putin — who also vowed during the news conference to continue Russia’s war in Ukraine — said on Thursday that negotiations over a prisoner exchange are ongoing.
“We have contacts with our American partners in this regard, and there is an ongoing dialogue,” he said.
“It is not easy,” Putin added. “I will not go into details, but in general it seems to me that we are speaking a language that we both understand. I hope that we will find a solution.”
Gershkovich has been held in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison since his arrest by the Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB, while on a reporting assignment in the city of Yekaterinburg. If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in a penal colony.