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Challenges Confront US in Negotiating Prisoner Exchange Agreements for American Detainees in Russia

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In recent months, a number of Russians have been accused of espionage in various countries, such as Slovenia and Brazil. Last week, Russia detained The Wall Street Journal's Evan Gershkovich, an American journalist, while he was on a reporting trip and charged him with espionage, a claim that the U.S. government and the Journal have vehemently denied. The fate of Gershkovich, as well as other detained individuals, may be determined through international prisoner exchanges, which are typically challenging to negotiate. The primary issue is determining the type of exchange that would take place and how difficult it would be to reach an agreement.

Over the past year, two Americans, former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed and basketball star Brittney Griner, were released from Russian detention in exchange for Russians who had been convicted of crimes in the U.S. However, striking such deals is challenging, particularly in the case of Paul Whelan, a Michigan man who has been held as a prisoner by Russia since 2018 and convicted of espionage. The U.S. government deems him to be wrongfully detained and is seeking his release.

Moreover, securing exchanges that involve Russians held in countries other than the U.S. is nearly unprecedented. This was demonstrated last year when U.S. officials were unable to involve a Russian prisoner held in Germany in a possible trade involving Ms. Griner. In this context, a more straightforward option could be a prisoner exchange for a Russian held in the U.S. However, the remaining Russian trade candidates have all been accused or convicted of cybercrimes, making it challenging for Russia to propose a fair trade for Gershkovich, who is being held on espionage allegations.

According to U.S. officials, many Russian hackers have ties to the Kremlin or Russian oligarchs and can be compelled to work for an intelligence service if they are brought back to Russia. This further complicates the situation and the possibility of a prisoner exchange.

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