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Moscow's hostage game with Evan Gershkovich and the U.S. diplomats trying to free him


Today marks the one-year anniversary of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich's detention in Russia. Gershkovich was arrested for spying, but it soon became clear that he was part of a bigger geopolitical game of prisoner swaps. It's known as hostage diplomacy, as NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: On the evening of March 29, 2023, Evan Gershkovich entered a restaurant in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg. The then-31-year-old was on a reporting trip about the country's economy. Jason Conti, general counsel for The Wall Street Journal, remembers the concern when Gershkovich didn't follow security protocol.

JASON CONTI: Evan didn't check in for kind of our regular check-in, then hadn't checked in again. There was also kind of online chatter, and someone had been taken out of a restaurant.

NORTHAM: A few hours later, the Russian authorities issued a statement saying Gershkovich had been arrested and charged with spying, charges Conti calls total nonsense.

CONTI: We've known from the beginning that this was a fortuitous arrest and that the most likely route to getting him out was some kind of a swap because that's the playbook that's been used before.

NORTHAM: It's the playbook for hostage diplomacy - when countries such as Russia, Iran or China detain foreigners to gain concessions from their governments. Gershkovich is one of two U.S. citizens the State Department considers to be wrongfully detained in Russia. The other is former Marine Paul Whelan, who's been jailed on espionage charges since 2018. Once their cases were deemed wrongful detentions, the U.S. government started talking to the Russians.

ROGER CARSTENS: In dealing with the Russians, we've had a channel that's been open with them for quite some time. It's a direct channel. It's official.

NORTHAM: Roger Carstens is a special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, an office created in 2015. He says U.S. negotiators try to find leverage to secure the release of the hostage.

CARSTENS: At times, it would be helpful if the other side just came to the table and said, here's exactly what we want to get this done, and then we can sit there and debate whether that's within the ability of the U.S. to deliver.

NORTHAM: Carstens has worked on several high-profile cases that most recently included the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner from Russia. She was exchanged for a notorious arms dealer, Viktor Bout, who was serving 25 years in a U.S. prison on terrorism charges. Now, there could be movement on Gershkovich's release.


PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Non-English language spoken).

NORTHAM: President Vladimir Putin recently suggested Vadim Krasikov, a Russian assassin serving a life sentence in Germany, could be exchanged for Gershkovich - a swap that would require buy-in from Berlin.

KAI CORNELIUS: I think it's wrong. From the beginning to the end, it's wrong to make such a move.

NORTHAM: Kai Cornelius is a German judge and professor of international law at the University of Hamburg. He says releasing Krasikov would be legal.

CORNELIUS: But it should happen in a way that, at first, you don't undermine the criminal law and the criminal justice system in Germany.

NORTHAM: The Wall Street Journal's Conti says making these swaps puts the U.S. government and its allies in difficult positions.

CONTI: It's this kind of despicable business of trading humans as part of a larger, you know, goal to get what you want. And so far, it's been effective. What are the consequences for Russia for having done this? There are none.

NORTHAM: And that runs the risk of rewarding bad behavior, says Dani Gilbert, a political science professor at Northwestern University who specializes in hostage-taking and wrongful detention.

DANI GILBERT: We have not seen such large increases in these cases as to suggest that every adversarial government is now engaging in this. But it does certainly seem to be working for them, and it seems to be on the rise.

NORTHAM: At least 20 U.S. citizens are still being wrongfully detained overseas.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.

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