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Putin references Russian hitman in German jail as he suggests ‘agreement can be reached’ on detained US reporter Gershkovich

<i>Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images/File</i><br/>US journalist Evan Gershkovich
Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images/File
US journalist Evan Gershkovich

By Nathan Hodge, Katharina Krebs and Helen Regan, CNN

(CNN) — Russian President Vladimir Putin has suggested “an agreement can be reached” with the United States to release detained American journalist Evan Gershkovich, as he brought up the conviction of a “patriotic” Russian hitman in Germany.

The comments came during a lengthy and at times ponderous interview with American right-wing pundit Tucker Carlson, Putin’s first with a Western media figure since his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, 2022.

The sit-down interview in Moscow sparked controversy for Carlson before it even aired and saw the former Fox News host largely refrain from challenging the Russian authoritarian. For some two hours, Putin repeated lengthy treatises on Russian history, his perceived grievances with the West, as well as his often-voiced justifications for launching the largest conflict in Europe since the Second World War.

Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter, was arrested last March while on a reporting trip in the country. The Federal Security Service, Russia’s main security service, accused him of trying to obtain state secrets – a charge Gershkovich, his employer and the US government have strenuously denied.

“We have made so many goodwill gestures that, it seems to me, we have run out of them,” Putin said when asked by Carlson whether he would be willing to release Gershkovich, according to a transcript from Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti.

“No one has ever responded to our goodwill gestures with similar gestures. But we, in principle, are ready to say that we do not exclude the possibility that we can do this with counter-movement from our partners.”

During the two-hour long interview filmed in the Russian capital Moscow, Putin said talks are ongoing with between representatives of Russian and US “special services” and the issue must be solved through the proper channels.

“We have no taboo about solving this problem. We are ready to solve it, but there are certain conditions that are being discussed through special services channels between the intelligence services. I think an agreement can be reached,” he told the former Fox News host.

A Russian court has repeatedly extended his pretrial detention but if convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison.

The US State Department has officially designated Gershkovich as wrongfully detained by Russia.

In December Gershkovich’s sister told CNN that the ordeal for his family is “painful” and “getting harder” as they await progress on his release.

“He’s missed out on so much. And we dearly miss him, but we have to stay strong and just keep fighting for Evan,” Danielle Gershkovich said.

The Biden administration’s efforts to secure his release have not yet yielded results. The White House offered to trade a large number of Russian nationals detained on espionage charges abroad in exchange for the release of Gershkovich and fellow American Paul Whelan, two people familiar with the matter told CNN in December, but the offer was not accepted.

When Putin said Gershkovich was working with US special services, Carlson did push the Russian president, saying: “This guy is obviously not a spy, he’s a kid. He’s being held hostage.”

Murder in a Berlin park

In reply, Putin indicated Russia’s interest in the release of a Russian national currently serving out a life sentence for murder in Germany.

Putin alluded to the case of Vadim Krasikov, a former colonel from Russia’s domestic spy organization convicted of assassinating a former Chechen fighter in broad daylight in Berlin in 2019.

“Listen, I’ll tell you: sitting in one country, a country that is an ally of the United States, is a man who, for patriotic reasons, eliminated a bandit in one of the European capitals,” Putin said.

Russian government officials have previously requested that Krasikov be released as part of a proposed prisoner swap of notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for US citizens Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan according to US officials and CNN reporting.

Griner, a professional basketball player, was freed in a prisoner exchange for Bout while Whelan remains in prison.

Paul Whelan, a US former marine who says he was visiting Russia for a friend’s wedding, was arrested in Moscow on December 28, 2018 and imprisoned on charges of espionage that he has consistently and vehemently denied.

The Wall Street Journal responded to Putin’s suggestion that Gershkovich could be released, saying: “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,” the newspaper said in a statement.

“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.”

History lessons and Ukraine war

Carlson was widely criticized ahead of the interview airing over concerns it would give Putin an outlet for his propaganda points. In recent years, he has offered flattering interviews to Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orbán and Argentina’s far-right president Javier Milei, giving the figures a stage to push their agenda.

Carlson had also said western journalists had “not bothered” to interview Putin and accused them of engaging in “fawning pep sessions” when interviewing Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky, who the former Fox News host asserted he would like to earnestly sit down with, but once likened to a rat.

In fact, journalists have repeatedly been requesting interviews with Putin, but the Russian President had declined to grant access. And Putin not only has declined to participate in interviews with the free press, but over the past two years he has waged a war against the media, locking up journalistsfining Big Tech companies for hosting “fake” information about the Ukraine invasion, and pushing through censorship laws that clamp down on news organizations.

The interview provided little groundbreaking substance that would enlighten American audiences as to what Putin intends to do about Ukraine, which has been devastated by nearly two years of unprovoked Russian bombardment and unlawful occupation.

Putin has an arrest warrant against him issued by the International Criminal Court over an alleged scheme to deport Ukrainian children to Russia. And on Thursday, Human Rights Watch said the Russian president should face a war crimes inquiry for Moscow’s brutal assault on the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, which killed thousands of people, destroyed countless buildings and was followed by a widespread campaign of Russification.

The first question from Carlson on why Russia invaded sparked a 30 minute revanchist lecture on the history of Russia and Ukraine, before repeating his talking points of NATO’s expansion and what he calls the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine as justification for his brutal war.

“Putin really railroaded Tucker Carlson,” said Jill Dougherty, CNN contributor and former CNN bureau chief in Moscow.

“I expected the reverse. I expected a lot of energy from Carlson, and he never asked the questions that you would have to ask, specifically about the war. The incessant bombing, taking Ukrainian children to Russia, the people who are arrested in Russia right now, the people who have left Russia because of the war. There are many questions that could have been asked and they never were,” said Dougherty.

Carlson’s interview style, for example, contrasted heavily with that of Austrian journalist Armin Wolf, who had a famously testy sit-down with Putin in 2018 in which he repeatedly challenged the Russian leader.

On relations with the United States, Putin said he has not spoken with President Joe Biden since before the war in February 2022, but added that Moscow and Washington have “certain contacts” that continue.

“I cannot remember when I talked to him,” Putin said. “But why should I remember everything? I have a lot of my own things to do. We have domestic political affairs.”

Putin added that Biden had made a “huge mistake of historical proportions” by supporting Ukraine.

The Russian President denied that Moscow has expansionist ambition, the continued occupation of sovereign Ukrainian territory and said Russia had no interest in attacking Poland, Lativia or other European nations. He dismissed such claims as “just threat mongering,” according to a translation provided by Carlson.

Putin also appeared to dismiss the use of tactical nuclear weapons, suggesting the idea was being evoked by western leaders to “extort additional money from US and European taxpayers.”

“It goes against common sense to get involved in some kind of global war … and a global war would bring all humanity to the bring of destruction.”

Last year, Putin deployed tactical nuclear weapons to neighboring ally Belarus and former Russian president and deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council Dmitry Medvedev said strategic nuclear weapons could be used to defend territories incorporated into Russia from Ukraine.

The Russian President suggested that the path to ending the war in Ukraine was through direct negotiations between Washington and Moscow.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has previously rejected suggestions it was time to negotiate peace with the Kremlin and has repeatedly said he would not give up Ukrainian territory. “When you want to have a compromise or a dialogue with somebody, you cannot do it with a liar,” he told CNN in September.

“You have issues on the border, issues with migration, issues with the national debt.” Putin said. “You have nothing better to do, so you should fight in Ukraine? Wouldn’t it be better to come to an agreement with Russia? Make an agreement, already understanding the situation that is developing today, realizing that Russia will fight for its interests to the end.”

The US and its allies have supported Ukraine with weaponry and economic support since Russia’s full-scale invasion of the country in February 2022; they have not sent troops to Ukraine, which is not a NATO member.

The interview came as US lawmakers debate a multi-billion dollar funding package for Ukraine. On Thursday, the US Senate voted to advance the $95.3 billion foreign aid package, which provides assistance for Ukraine and Israel, after Republicans blocked a broader bill that included border security measures earlier this week.

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