More Americans are ending up in Russian jails. Prospects for their release are unclear | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source
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More Americans are ending up in Russian jails. Prospects for their release are unclear

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and U.S President Joe Biden shake hands in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 16, 2021. Arrests of Americans in Russia have become increasingly common as relations between Moscow and Washington sink to Cold War lows. Some have been exchanged for Russians held in the U.S., while for others, the prospects of being released in a swap are less clear. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool, File)
Original Publication Date June 24, 2024 - 9:16 PM

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — One was a journalist on a reporting trip. Another was attending a wedding. Yet another was a dual national returning to visit family.

All are U.S. citizens now behind bars in Russia on various charges.

Arrests of Americans in Russia are increasingly common with relations sinking to Cold War lows. Washington accuses Moscow of using U.S. citizens as bargaining chips, but Russia insists they all broke the law.

While high-profile prisoner exchanges have occurred, the prospects of swaps are unclear.

“It seems that since Moscow itself has cut off most of the communication channels and does not know how to restore them properly without losing face, they are trying to use the hostages. … At least that’s what it looks like,” said Boris Bondarev, a former Russian diplomat who quit after Moscow invaded Ukraine in 2022.

Who is known to be in Russian custody?

EVAN GERSHKOVICH — The 32-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter faces trial Wednesday on espionage charges that he, his employer and the U.S. government deny. He was detained in March 2023 while reporting in the city of Yekaterinburg and accused of spying. Russia alleges Gershkovich was “gathering secret information” at the CIA's behest about a facility that produces and repairs military equipment. It provided no evidence to support the accusations.

PAUL WHELAN — The 54-year-old corporate security executive from Michigan was arrested in 2018 in Moscow where he was attending a friend's wedding, convicted two years later of espionage, and sentenced to 16 years in prison. He maintains his innocence, saying the charges were fabricated.

TRAVIS LEAKE — The musician was arrested in 2023 on drug charges. An Instagram page describes him as the singer for the band Lovi Noch (Seize the Night). Court officials have said he is a former paratrooper.

MARC FOGEL — The Moscow teacher was sentenced to 14 years in prison, also on drug charges. The Interfax news agency said Fogel taught at the Anglo-American School in Moscow and had worked at the U.S. Embassy. Interfax cited court officials as saying Fogel has admitted guilt.

GORDON BLACK — The 34-year-old staff sergeant stationed at Fort Cavazos, Texas, was convicted June 19 in Vladivostok of stealing and making threats against his girlfriend, and was sentenced to three years and nine months in prison. He had flown to Russia from his U.S. military post in South Korea without authorization and was arrested in May after she accused him of stealing from her, according to U.S. and Russian authorities.

ROBERT WOODLAND — Woodland, a dual national, is on trial in Moscow on drug- trafficking charges. Russian media reported his name matches a U.S. citizen interviewed in 2020 who said he was born in the Perm region in 1991 and adopted by an American couple at age 2. He said he traveled to Russia to find his mother and eventually met her on a TV show. Woodland was charged with trafficking drugs as part of an organized group — punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

ALSU KURMASHEVA — Kurmasheva, a dual U.S.-Russian national, was arrested in 2023 in her hometown of Kazan. The Prague-based editor for the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tatar-Bashkir service was visiting her ailing mother. She faces multiple charges, including not self-reporting as a “foreign agent” and spreading false information about the Russian military.

KSENIA KHAVANA — Khavana, 33, was arrested in Yekaterinburg in February on treason charges, accused of collecting money for Ukraine's military. Independent Russian news outlet Mediazona identified her by her maiden name of Karelina, and said she had U.S. citizenship after marrying an American. She returned to Russia from Los Angeles to visit family. The rights group Pervy Otdel said the charges stem from a $51 donation to a U.S. charity that helps Ukraine.

DAVID BARNES — An engineer from Texas, Barnes was arrested while visiting his sons in Russia, where their mother had taken them. His supporters say the woman made baseless claims of sexual abuse that already had been discredited by Texas investigators but he was convicted in Russia anyway and sentenced to prison.

What's the process for negotiations?

Gershkovich and Whelan have gotten the most attention, with the State Department designating both as wrongfully detained. The designation is applied to only a small subset of Americans jailed by foreign countries.

Those cases go to a special State Department envoy for hostage affairs, who tries to negotiate their release. They must meet certain criteria, including a determination the arrest came solely because the person is a U.S. national or part of an effort to influence U.S. policy or extract concessions from the government.

The U.S. successfully negotiated swaps in 2022 for WNBA star Brittney Griner and Marine veteran Trevor Reed — both designated as wrongfully detained. Moscow got arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was serving a 25-year sentence, and pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, serving 20 years for cocaine trafficking.

It’s unclear how many Americans are jailed in Russia or if negotiations are in the works for them.

Kurmasheva’s husband, Pavel Butorin, told The Associated Press after her arrest he hoped the U.S. government would use “every avenue and every means available to it” to win her release, including designating her as wrongfully detained.

Is the West holding anyone Russia wants?

In December, the State Department said it had made a significant offer for Gershkovich and Whelan but Russia rejected it.

Officials did not give details, although Russia has been said to be seeking Vadim Krasikov, serving a life sentence in Germany in 2021 for the killing of Zelimkhan “Tornike” Khangoshvili, a Georgian citizen of Chechen descent who had fought Russian troops in Chechnya and later claimed asylum in Germany.

President Vladimir Putin, asked about releasing Gershkovich, appeared to refer to Krasikov by pointing to a man imprisoned by a U.S. ally for “liquidating a bandit” who had allegedly killed Russian soldiers in Chechnya.

Beyond that, Russia has stayed silent. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov says such swaps “must be carried out in absolute silence.”

Historically, when relations are better, "the exchanges seem to be smoother,” said Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at the New School in New York and the great-granddaughter of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

She cited prisoner swaps between the USSR and Chile in the 1970s, as well as those with the U.S. and Germany shortly after Mikhail Gorbachev took office in the 1980s involving dissidents Vladimir Bukovsky and Natan Sharansky.

Ultimately, the decision “is only in Putin’s hands,” Khrushcheva said.

In Gershkovich's case, an exchange might also involve concessions, possibly related to Ukraine, said Sam Greene of the Center for European Policy Analysis.

“Even if the immediate reason to get people around the (negotiating) table is Evan and a prisoner exchange, that allows them to get right up to the line and to say: ‘OK, we’ve got 98% of the deal, but if you really want to get this done, there’s this other thing we’d really like to talk about,’" like sanctions or another Ukraine-related issue, he said.

“The Kremlin is perfectly happy to hold onto Evan as long as it possibly can. And so its incentive is to get as much for him as possible,” Greene said.

___

Tucker reported from Washington.

News from © The Associated Press, 2024
The Associated Press

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