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Commenting on Navalny's death for first time, Putin says he supported prisoner swap for his foe

Russian President Vladimir Putin said early Monday that he supported an idea to release opposition leader Alexei Navalny in a prisoner exchange just days before the man who was his biggest foe died.

In his first comments to address Navalny's death, Putin said of the dissident's demise: “It happens. There is nothing you can do about it. It's life.”

The remarks were unusual in that he repeatedly referenced Navalny by his name for the first time in years. They came at a late-night news conference as results poured in from a presidential election which extended his rule for another six years after the Kremlin ruthlessly suppressed the opposition and crippled independent media.

Navalny's allies last month said that talks with Russian and Western officials about a prisoner swap involving Navalny were underway. The politician's longtime associate Maria Pevchikh said the talks involving a swap with a Russian held in Germany and two U.S. citizens were in their final stages just days before the Kremlin critic's sudden and unexplained death in an Arctic penal colony.

She accused Putin of "getting rid of" Navalny in order not to exchange him, but offered no evidence to back her claims, and they could not be independently confirmed.

Putin said Monday, also without offering any evidence, that several days before Navalny's death, “certain colleagues, not from the (presidential) administration” told him about “an idea to exchange Navalny for certain people held in penitentiary facilities in Western countries." He said he supported the idea.

“Believe it or not, but the person talking to me didn't even finish their sentence when I said: ‘I agree,'" Putin said in response to a question from a journalist about Navalny's death. He added that his one condition was that Navalny wouldn't return to Russia.

“But unfortunately, whatever happened, happened,” Putin said.

U.S. officials said there had been no discussions between Russian and the United States over swapping Alexei Navalny with prisoners from the West.

National Security advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters during a White House briefing Monday that U.S. officials had spoken to Russia for “months and years” about releasing American detainees but “have not heard a Russian official raise Navalny as part of a prisoner swap in any of these conversations.”

Navalny, 47, Russia’s best-known opposition politician, died last month while serving a 19-year sentence on extremism charges that he rejected as politically motivated. His allies, family members and Western officials blamed the death on the Kremlin, accusations it has rejected.

The politician's associates said officials listed “natural causes” on paperwork Navalny's mother was shown when she was trying to retrieve his body.

Navalny had been jailed since January 2021, when he returned to Moscow of his own accord after recuperating in Germany from nerve agent poisoning he blamed on the Kremlin. He was immediately arrested. The Kremlin has vehemently denied it was behind the poisoning.

Pevchikh claimed that there was a plan to swap Navalny and two U.S. citizens held in Russia for Vadim Krasikov. He was serving a life sentence in Germany for the 2019 killing in Berlin of Zelimkhan “Tornike” Khangoshvili, a 40-year-old Georgian citizen of Chechen descent. German judges said Krasikov acted on the orders of Russian authorities.

She didn’t identify the U.S. citizens that were supposedly part of the deal. There are several in custody in Russia, including Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, arrested on espionage charges, and Paul Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan, convicted of espionage and serving a long prison sentence. They and the U.S. government dispute the charges against them.

Sullivan said Monday the U.S. is in regular communication with senior Russian officials and had made “a series of offers” for the release of the two men. “It remains an utmost priority of ours,” to get the men out of Russia, Sullivan said.

German officials have refused to comment when asked if there had been any effort by Russia to swap Krasikov.

Putin had earlier said that the Kremlin was open to negotiations on Gershkovich. He pointed to a man imprisoned in a “U.S.-allied country” for “liquidating a bandit” who had allegedly killed Russian soldiers during separatist fighting in Chechnya. Putin didn’t mention names but appeared to refer to Krasikov.

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Chris Megerian in Washington D.C contributed to this report.