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Putin ‘ready to talk’ as he hints at prisoner swap for jailed US journalist Evan Gershkovich

Vladimir Putin says Russia is ready to hold negotiations over a prisoner exchange that could see the release of US journalist Evan Gershkovich.

Talking to Tucker Carlson in an interview in Moscow, the Russian president said his regime was open to talks but repeatedly pushed an unverifiable claim that the Wall Street Journal reporter was guilty of espionage.

"He was caught red-handed when he was secretly getting classified information," Mr Putin said of Mr Gershkovich, adding that he doesn’t exclude that the reporter could return home.

The Wall Street Journal and US news outlets have strongly denied any wrongdoing by Mr Gershkovich and said his activities fell strictly within the remit of legitimate journalism.

Putin dangled the prospect of releasing Mr Gershkovich in exchange for the Russian agent and FSB assassin Vadim Krasikov, who is currently in prison in Germany after killing a Georgian military officer in a Berlin park in 2019.

Claiming that there is “no taboo” on settling the issue of the 32-year-old reporter’s release, the Russian president said, "We are ready to solve it but there are certain conditions being discussed between special services. They are talking… I believe an agreement can be reached.”

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, right, is escorted from the Lefortovsky court in Moscow, Russia. (AP)
Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, right, is escorted from the Lefortovsky court in Moscow, Russia. (AP)

This is the first time Mr Putin has addressed the US journalist’s arrest by Russian authorities.

Mr Gershkovich was detained in March last year during a reporting trip to the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, about 2,000km (1,200 miles) east of Moscow.

Russia’s Federal Security Service alleged that the reporter, “acting on the instructions of the American side, collected information constituting a state secret about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex”.

He has been held in Russian custody since and, if found guilty, could be jailed for up to 20 years.

Expanding on his offer of talks, Mr Putin linked his case to that of a man imprisoned in a “US-allied country” for “liquidating a bandit” who killed Russian soldiers during the fighting in the Caucasus. This is widely presumed to refer to Krasikov, though Mr Putin did not name him directly.

“He [the Georgian military officer] put our soldiers taken prisoners on a road and then drove a car over their heads. There was a patriot who liquidated him in one of the European capitals," Mr Putin said.

Mr Putin insisted that Mr Gershkovich had obtained classified information from one of his sources in a clandestine manner, and had been caught “red-handed” upon receiving the information.

“He was receiving classified confidential information, and he was doing it covertly,” the Russian president told Carlson.

Mr Putin added: “He was caught red handed when he was receiving this information.”

The Russian leader also charged that Mr Gershkovich was “working for the US special services” and was “essentially controlled by the US authorities”, an accusation that is likely to be strenuously denied by the Journal as it would compromise the integrity of any journalist to be surreptitiously working for the US government.

The US government has maintained that Mr Gershkovich was not working as a spy and considers him wrongfully detained on politicised charges.

“Evan is a journalist, and journalism is not a crime. Any portrayal to the contrary is total fiction. Evan was unjustly arrested and has been wrongfully detained by Russia for nearly a year for doing his job, and we continue to demand his immediate release,” said a spokesperson for the Journal when contacted for comment by The Independent.

They added: “We’re encouraged to see Russia’s desire for a deal that brings Evan home, and we hope this will lead to his rapid release and return to his family and our newsroom."

Mr Gershkovich’s imprisonment came after another American, basketball star Brittany Griner, was held in detention for a lengthy period of time over a drug possession charge. She was later freed after the Biden administration reached an agreement to exchange her for the release of a Russian arms dealer in US custody.

The two prosecutions of Mr Gershkovich and Ms Griner are considered by many in the US as part of a growing trend in which authoritarian countries imprison Americans and other Westerners on trumped-up charges to extract concessions from their respective governments.