Dec 14, 2023 - World

Putin: "Dialogue" is underway to free wrongfully detained Americans

Russian President Vladimir Putin during his year-end press conference in Moscow on Dec. 14.

Russian President Vladimir Putin during his year-end press conference in Moscow on Dec. 14. Photo: Gavriil Grigorov/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed on Thursday that U.S. and Russian officials are in a "dialogue" to secure the release of two Americans that Russia has wrongfully detained, the BBC reports.

Why it matters: Wall Street Journal journalist Evan Gershkovich and former Marine Paul Whelan have been wrongfully imprisoned by Russia since March 2023 and December 2018, respectively.

  • Putin's remarks came during his first year-end press conference since he ordered his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
  • For the first time in a decade, Putin skipped the annual press conference at the end of 2022, potentially to avoid questions about the invasion.

What he's saying: When asked about another possible prisoner exchange to secure the release of Gershkovich and Whelan, Putin said, "we want to reach an agreement, and that agreement must be mutually acceptable and suit both sides."

  • "A dialogue on the subject is under way. It's a difficult dialogue and I won't go into the details now, but I think on the whole we're speaking in a language which we both understand. I hope we find a solution," he said, per the BBC.

Catch up quick: Gershkovich was accused of espionage and arrested earlier this year just days after reporting on the invasion's long-term financial strain on the Russian economy.

  • Russian courts have repeatedly extended Gershkovich's pre-trial detention since his arrest. He has been in jail for over 250 days without being found guilty of a crime.
  • Whelan was also accused of espionage for allegedly possessing a flash drive that contained classified information, a claim he, his family and the U.S. have said is false.
  • He was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020 and has since been in a remote Russian penal colony.

Between the lines: Recent prisoner swaps between the U.S. and Russia have seen Moscow receive people who organized international criminal rings in order for Washington to secure the release of Americans accused of committing minor infractions.

  • For example, WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was arrested after authorities found a vape cartridge with hashish oil in her luggage, was exchanged in December 2022 for the notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout.
  • Former Marine Trevor Reed, who was accused of assaulting two police officers and sentenced to nine years in prison, was released in exchange for international drug smuggler Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was serving a 20-year sentence after being found guilty of trying to bring more than $100 million worth of cocaine into the U.S.

Threat level: The U.S. State Department has repeatedly urged Americans to leave Russia and has warned that it appears the Russian government is targeting out Americans for detention.

On his invasion of Ukraine, Putin claimed in the press conference that a total of 617,000 Russian troops are currently fighting in Ukraine.

The big picture: Putin again boasted that he believes Ukraine is running out of supplies, saying the "freebies" Kyiv has received from its allies "could run out at some point."

  • "And it seems that they are gradually running out," he added.
  • He made the comments on Ukraine's military supplies as Republicans in Congress continue to link further military aid to Ukraine with changes to U.S. immigration policy.
  • As a result of Republicans' demands, the prospect of Ukraine receiving additional Ukrainian military appears distant as Kyiv's forces face another tough winter of fighting.

Putin repeated that he will not negotiate a peace deal with Ukraine until Russian forces achieves their military objectives in the invasion, listing "denazification, demilitarisation and its neutral status" as goals.

  • The comment indicates Putin is currently unwilling to end the war until Ukraine's democratic leaders are no longer in office, until Kyiv has given up its means to defend itself and until it has abandoned its desire to join NATO — all of which are nonstarters for Ukraine.

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