The Biden administration confirmed Thursday that it is engaged in a "negotiations process" to free Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich from a Russian prison, just days after Moscow said that it is open to a potential prisoner swap.
Gershkovich was arrested in late March and charged with espionage, a crime that carries a 20-year prison sentence. The United States appears to be quietly working with Russia to secure the release of Gershkovich and Paul Whelan, a former Marine who was detained in Russia more than four years ago.
"Given the ongoing work to secure Paul and Evan’s release, we will not go into details on the negotiation process," a State Department spokesman told the Washington Free Beacon in response to questions about the Kremlin’s claim earlier this week that a prisoner swap is on the table.
The State Department’s comments appear to confirm the Kremlin’s claims that it is discussing a possible prisoner exchange with American officials, potentially the second such swap in six months. Diplomatic channels with Moscow appear to be open even as Russia wages an unprovoked war on Ukraine that has drawn fierce condemnation from the United States.
Women’s basketball player Brittney Griner was freed from Moscow late last year after she was arrested for carrying drugs into the country. In exchange for Griner, the Biden administration released Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, known as the "Merchant of Death," drawing fierce criticism from Republicans who accused President Joe Biden of surrendering to Moscow. Whelan, notably, was not part of that deal and expressed shock that the Biden administration would leave him behind.
Russian spokesman Dmitry Peskov signaled that releasing both Whelan and Gershkovich is now on the table, but said negotiations must be carried out in secret.
"We have said that there have been certain contacts on the subject, but we don't want them to be discussed in public," Peskov was quoted as saying in a press call. "They must be carried out and continue in complete silence."
The U.S. ambassador to Russia, Lynne Tracy, was permitted to visit Gershkovich on Monday, the first time American officials were granted consular access since April 17.
A State Department official, speaking only on background, told the Free Beacon that the meeting was held at Lefortova Prison in Moscow, and that "Gershkovich is in good health and remains strong, despite his circumstances."
U.S. embassy officials, the State Department said, "will continue to provide all appropriate support to Mr. Gershkovich and his family, and we expect Russian authorities to provide continued consular access."
The State Department reiterated its belief that Gershkovich "is wrongfully detained and the charges against him are baseless." The United States is pushing for the "immediate release" of both Gershkovich and Whelan, the State Department continued, adding that "both men deserve to go home to their families now."
The White House did not respond to a Free Beacon request for comment on the prisoner talks with Russia, but said Tuesday that it continues to push for the release of both men.
"While we unfortunately do not have a breakthrough to share, we continue to pursue every avenue to secure the release of Evan Gershkovich and fellow American Paul Whelan," a White House spokesman told the Wall Street Journal.