More Americans are ending up in Russian jails. Prospects for their release are unclear

TALLINN, Estonia — One was one journalist on a reporting trip. Another attended a wedding. Yet another was a dual citizen returning to visit family.

All are American citizens who are now behind bars in Russia on various charges.

Arrests of Americans in Russia are becoming increasingly common as relations deteriorate to the low points of the Cold War. Washington accuses Moscow of using American citizens as a bargaining chip, but Russia insists they have all broken the law.

Although high-profile prisoner exchanges have taken place, the prospects for the exchange are unclear.

“It seems that since Moscow itself has cut off most of the communication channels and does not know how to properly restore them without losing face, they are trying to use the hostages. … Or so it seems,” said Boris Bondarev, a former Russian diplomat who resigned after Moscow invaded Ukraine in 2022.

EVAN GERSHKOVICH — The 32 year old A Wall Street Journal reporter will go on trial Wednesday on spying charges that he, his employer and the U.S. government deny. He was arrested in March 2023 while reporting in the city of Yekaterinburg and charged with espionage. Russia claims that Gershkovich “collected classified information” on behalf of the CIA about a facility that produces and repairs military equipment. It provided no evidence to support the allegations.

PAUL WHELAN – The 54-year-old corporate security manager of Michigan was arrested in 2018 in Moscow, where he attended a friend’s wedding, convicted of espionage two years later and sentenced to 16 years in prison. He maintains his innocence and says the charges are fabricated.

TRAVIS LEEK — The musician was arrested in 2023 on drug charges. On an Instagram page he is described as the singer of the band Lovi Noch (Seize the Night). Court officials have said he is a former paratrooper.

MARC FOGEL — The Moscow teacher has been sentenced to 14 years in prison, also for drug abuse. According to the Interfax news agency, Fogel taught at the Anglo-American School in Moscow and had worked at the US embassy. Interfax quoted court officials as saying Fogel has admitted guilt.

GORDON BLACK — The 34-year-old Sgt stationed at Fort Cavazos, Texas, was convicted on June 19 in Vladivostok of robbery and making threats against his girlfriend, and was sentenced to three years and nine months in prison. He flew to Russia without authorization from his U.S. military post in South Korea and was arrested in May after she accused him of stealing from her, U.S. and Russian authorities said.

ROBERT WOODLAND – Woodland, a dual citizen, is on trial in Moscow on charges of drug trafficking. Russian media reported that his name matched a US citizen interviewed in 2020 who said he was born in the Perm region in 1991 and adopted by an American couple at the age of 2. He said he traveled to Russia to find his mother and eventually met her on a TV. show. Woodland was charged with drug trafficking as part of an organized group, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

ALSU KURMASHEVA — Kurmasheva, who has dual American-Russian citizenship, was arrested in 2023 in her hometown of Kazan. The Prague-based editor of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s US government-funded Tatar-Bashkir service was visiting her ailing mother. She faces multiple charges, including failing to report as a “foreign agent” and spreading false information about the Russian military.

KSENIA KHAVANA — KhavanaThe 33-year-old was arrested in Yekaterinburg in February on treason charges, accused of raising money for the Ukrainian army. Independent Russian news outlet Mediazona identified her by her maiden name Karelina and said she had US citizenship after marrying an American. She returned to Russia from Los Angeles to visit family. Rights group Pervy Otdel said the charges stem from a $51 donation to a U.S. charity helping Ukraine.

DAVID BARNES – Barnes, a Texas engineer, was arrested while visiting his sons in Russia, where their mother had taken them. His supporters say the woman made unsubstantiated claims of sexual abuse that had already been discredited by Texas investigators, but he was still convicted in Russia and sentenced to prison.

Gershkovich and Whelan have received the most attention, with the State Department labeling both as unjustified. The designation is only applied to a small portion of Americans imprisoned by foreign countries.

These cases go to a State Department special envoy for hostage affairs, who tries to negotiate their release. They must meet certain criteria, including a determination that the arrest was made solely because the person is a U.S. citizen or is part of an effort to influence U.S. policy or extract government concessions.

The US successfully negotiated swaps in 2022 WNBA star Brittney Griner And Navy veteran Trevor Reed – both classified as wrongfully detained. Moscow got arms dealer Viktor Boutwho served a 25-year prison sentence, and pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who served 20 years for cocaine trafficking.

It is unclear how many Americans are imprisoned in Russia and whether negotiations are underway for them.

Kurmasheva’s husband, Pavel Butorin, told The Associated Press after her arrest he hoped that the US government would use “every avenue and means at its disposal” to secure her release, including labeling her as unlawfully detained.

In December, the State Department said it had made a significant offer for Gershkovich and Whelan, but Russia had rejected it.

Officials did not provide details, although Russia was reportedly looking Vadim Krasikovwho is serving a life sentence in Germany in 2021 for the murder of Zelimkhan “Tornike” Khangoshvili, a Georgian citizen of Chechen descent who had fought against Russian forces in Chechnya and later sought asylum in Germany.

President Vladimir Putin, asked about releasing Gershkovichappeared to refer to Krasikov by referring to a man imprisoned by a U.S. ally for “liquidating a bandit” who allegedly killed Russian soldiers in Chechnya.

Furthermore, Russia has remained silent. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov says such barter transactions “must be carried out in absolute silence.”

Historically, when relations are better, “exchanges seem to flow more smoothly,” says Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at the New School in New York and the great-granddaughter of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

She mentioned prisoner exchanges between the Soviet Union and Chile in the 1970s, as well as those with the US and Germany shortly after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the 1980s, involving dissidents Vladimir Bukovsky and Natan Sharansky.

Ultimately, the decision is “only in Putin’s hands,” Khrushcheva said.

In Gershkovich’s case, an exchange could also include concessions, possibly related to Ukraine, said Sam Greene of the Center for European Policy Analysis.

“Even if the immediate reason for getting people around the (negotiating) table is Evan and a prisoner swap, that allows them to get to the line and say, ‘OK, we got 98% of the deal, but “If you really want to get this done, there is something else we would really like to talk about, like sanctions or some other issue related to Ukraine,” he said.

“The Kremlin is very happy to hold on to Evan for as long as possible. And so the incentive is to get as much as possible for him,” Greene said.


Tucker reported from Washington.