When it comes to prisoner exchanges with Russia, silence is golden, says U.S. special envoy

U.S. Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens says he agrees with the Kremlin that silence is essential when it comes to public discussions about prisoner exchanges. 

“This might be the one time that I’ll agree with the Russians,” Carstens said during an interview on Rosemary Barton Live broadcast on Sunday. He explained that fact checking every story that comes up about possible prisoner exchanges, “might prove detrimental to bringing the guys home.”

The diplomat is referring to U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich, 32, and Ottawa-born U.S. citizen Paul Whelan, 54, who are both being held in Russian penal colonies on spying charges. 

Gershkovich is a reporter with the Wall Street Journal newspaper and has now spent one year in Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison. Whelan is a former corporate security executive and U.S. marine veteran who was arrested in 2018 while in Moscow to attend a friend’s wedding. 

Gershkovich’s sister, Danielle Gershkovich, told Rosemary Barton Live that she continues to exchange letters with Evan on a weekly basis. “He’s still my little brother teasing me,” she said. 

Diplomat sees positive signs

A Moscow court announced last week that Gershkovich’s pre-trial detention would be extended another three months, sparking international outcry.

Carstens said he views the extension as a “positive” that could signal the Russians want to knock out a deal in the next 90 days. “I’m hopeful that we can get something done before Evan actually starts a trial,” he said. 

The extension gives his negotiating team “more time and space to try to figure out a way to come to a deal that the Russians will take and that the United States can bring to bear.”

WATCHNegotiations to bring journalist back from Russia should be ‘private,’ U.S. diplomat says: 

Negotiations to bring Evan Gershkovich back from Russia should be ‘private,’ U.S. diplomat says

‘We don’t really progress too much when we start negotiating in public,’ says Roger Carstens, the U.S. special envoy for hostage affairs, regarding the one-year anniversary of Russia’s detention of American journalist Evan Gershkovich.

Gershkovich became the first U.S. journalist arrested on spying charges in Russia since the Cold War. He was detained by the Federal Security Service (FSB) on March 29, 2023 while on assignment in Yekaterinburg, a city in the Ural Mountains nearly 900 miles east of Moscow. 

Given the lack of transparency in Russia’s justice system, it’s expected the trial would be conducted in secret. Gershkovich could face up to 20 years in Russian prison. 

U.S. President Joe Biden specifically mentioned what he called the wrongful detention of Gershkovich and Whelan in his State of the Union address earlier this month, reiterating that his administration would work “around the clock” to bring them home. 

A man in a baseball cap and jacket with backpack straps is shown posing for a photo outdoors.
A picture taken on July 24, 2021 shows U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich. He has been accused of spying by Russian authorities. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

Hostage diplomacy a ‘silo’ amid geopolitical tensions 

Carstens told Rosemary Barton Live that “for some strange reason” diplomatic channels used in hostage negotiations can be “siloed” amid geopolitical tensions between countries.

“Even if things are tense between us and the Russians … we still usually find a way to work with them to bring our citizens home,” said Carstens, pointing to the successful release of basketball star Brittney Griner and former U.S. marine Trevor Reed. 

“We work hard and then suddenly one day someone steps on an aircraft and they come back to the United States of America,” he said.  

A bespectacled, clean-shaven man wearing a sweater and a collared shirt underneath is shown in a closeup photograph.
Paul Whelan, a former U.S. marine who was arrested for alleged spying, listens to the verdict in a courtroom at the Moscow City Court in Moscow in 2020. (Sofia Sandurskaya/Moscow News Agency/The Associated Press)

In a surprise call to CBC News foreign correspondent Briar Stewart in London, Paul Whelan expressed hope that a deal could be reached to secure his release. 

Despite this message of optimism, the recent death of Russia’s most prominent political prisoner, Alexei Navalny, left Whelan feeling “extremely depressed.”  

Whelan said Navalny’s death in a Siberian gulag shows how the fate of high-profile prisoners can change in an instant. 

Putin comments publicly on jailed Americans

Paul Beckett, Gershkovich’s colleague at the Wall Street Journal, finds hope in the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin mentioned Gershkovich in two recent high-profile events: his interview with U.S. journalist Tucker Carlson, and his annual press conference. 

 “We understand these conversations have been ongoing and we just look forward to them bearing fruit,” Beckett said. 

Carstens said that by mentioning Gershkovich, Putin could be suggesting a deal is possible. 

“It’s hard to put words into any president’s mouth, let alone President Putin, but I would like to take that as a signal that he’s absolutely willing to bargain and make a deal with us,” said Carstens. 

Gershkovich’s detention has seriously altered the calculation of risk versus reward for journalists working in Russia, Beckett said. 

 “This is an additional benefit for Putin,” Beckett said. “Fact-based journalism has diminished dramatically.”

‘I’m in awe of my brother,’ says Danielle Gershkovich

Danielle Gershkovich said it has been one year since she got the call from her mother letting her know that her little brother had been arrested. 

“Whatever we’re going through, Evan is going through something so much harder. So we just have to keep moving forward for him,” she said. 

WATCH | ‘I’m in awe of my brother,’ says sister of imprisoned journalist Evan Gershkovich:  

‘I’m in awe of my brother,’ says sister of imprisoned journalist Evan Gershkovich

Danielle Gershkovich, whose brother Evan remains detained in Russia one year after his arrest, says her family takes inspiration from his continued resilience. ‘Whatever we’re going through, Evan is going through something so much harder,’ she told CBC’s Rosemary Barton.

Danielle described her brother as the life of the party. He was the captain of his high school soccer team. He was a DJ for his college radio station. 

Most of all, “journalism is his passion,” Danielle said. “There was always a story he was chasing.”

Carstens said his message to Gershkovich and Whelan is that the U.S. team is not going to stop until they’re home. 

“Evan is not a spy. He’s a journalist. He was essentially doing his job as a journalist and the Russians should just let him go free and clear. And the same with Paul Whelan. He should be just released,” said Carstens. 

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