A growing number of Americans end up in Russian jails. The prospects for their release are unclear

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is escorted to a courtroom for a hearing in 2022 in Khimki outside Moscow, Russia. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

TALLINN, Estonia — A journalist on a reporting trip in a Ural Mountains city. A corporate security executive traveling to Moscow for a wedding. A dual national returning to her hometown in Tatarstan to visit her family.

All of them are U.S. citizens, and all are behind bars in Russia on charges of varying severity.


Arrests of Americans in Russia have become increasingly common as relations between Moscow and Washington sink to Cold War lows. Washington accuses Moscow of targeting its citizens and using them as political bargaining chips, but Russian officials insist they all broke the law.

Some have been exchanged for Russians held in the U.S., while for others, the prospects of being released in a swap are less clear.

Who are the Americans in custody?

Friday marks a year since the arrest of Evan Gershkovich, a 32-year-old reporter for The Wall Street Journal who is awaiting trial in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo Prison on espionage charges.

Gershkovich was detained while on a reporting trip to the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg and accused of spying for the U.S. Russian authorities haven’t revealed any details of the accusations or evidence to back up the charges, which he, his employer and the U.S. government all deny.

Another American accused of espionage is Paul Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan. He was arrested in 2018 in Russia and sentenced to 16 years in prison two years later. Whelan, who said he traveled to Moscow to attend a friend’s wedding, has maintained his innocence and said the charges against him were fabricated.

The U.S. government has declared both Gershkovich and Whelan to be wrongfully detained and has been advocating for their release.

Others detained include Travis Leake, a musician who had been living in Russia for years and was arrested last year on drug-related charges; Marc Fogel, a teacher in Moscow, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison, also on drug charges; and dual nationals Alsu Kurmasheva and Ksenia Khavana.

Kurmasheva, a Prague-based editor for the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tatar-Bashkir service, was arrested October 2023 in her hometown of Kazan, where she traveled to see her ailing elderly mother. She has faced multiple charges, including not self-reporting as a “foreign agent” and spreading false information about the army.

Khavana, of Los Angeles, returned to Russia to visit family and was arrested on treason charges. According to Pervy Otdel, a rights group that specializes in treason cases, the charges against her stem from a $51 donation to a U.S. charity that helps Ukraine.

A path to freedom via prisoner swaps

The precise number of Americans jailed in Russia is unclear, but the cases of Gershkovich and Whelan have received the most attention.

Gershkovich was designated as wrongfully detained by the State Department less than two weeks after his arrest, unusually fast action by the U.S government. The designation is applied to only a small subsection of Americans jailed by foreign countries.

Prisoners who get that classification have their cases assigned to a special State Department envoy for hostage affairs, who tries to negotiate their releases, and must meet certain criteria — including a determination that the arrest was done solely because the person is a U.S. national or as part of an effort to influence U.S. policy or extract concessions from the government.

The U.S. has had some success in recent years negotiating high-profile prisoner swaps with Russia, striking deals in 2022 that resulted in the releases of WNBA star Brittney Griner and Marine veteran Trevor Reed. Both Griner and Reed were designated as wrongfully detained.

In the exchanges for them, Moscow got arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S., and pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, given a 20-year prison term in the U.S. for cocaine trafficking.

It’s unclear whether there are any negotiations in the works on swapping other Americans held in Russia, such as Leake, Fogel, Kurmasheva or Khavana.

Is the west holding Russians that Moscow wants?

In December, the State Department said it had made a significant offer to secure the release of Gershkovich and Whelan, which it said Russia had rejected.

Officials did not describe the offer, although Russia has been said to be seeking the release of Vadim Krasikov, who was given a life sentence in Germany in 2021 for the killing in Berlin of Zelimkhan “Tornike” Khangoshvili, a 40-year-old Georgian citizen of Chechen descent who had fought Russian troops in Chechnya and later claimed asylum in Germany.

President Vladimir Putin, asked this year about releasing Gershkovich, appeared to refer to Krasikov by pointing to a man imprisoned by a U.S. ally for “liquidating a bandit” who had allegedly killed Russian soldiers during separatist fighting in Chechnya.

Beyond that hint, Russian officials have kept mum about the talks. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov repeatedly said that while “certain contacts” on swaps continue, “they must be carried out in absolute silence.”

Whether there are any other Russians held in the West that Moscow might be interested in is unclear.

When Russia agreed to release Griner but not Whelan, a senior Biden administration official lamented to reporters that Russia had “rejected each and every one of our proposals for his release.”

Historically, “when the relationships (between countries) are better, the exchanges seem to be smoother,” said Nina Khrushcheva, a Moscow-born professor of international affairs at the New School in New York and the great-granddaughter of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

She pointed to prisoner swaps between the Soviet Union and Chile during the detente period of the 1970s, as well as those with the U.S. and Germany shortly after Mikhail Gorbachev took office in the 1980s.

Ultimately, however, the fate of those imprisoned in Russia “is only in Putin’s hands,” Khrushcheva said.

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