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

By Isaac M March 29, 2024

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.

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


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.


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.

Kurmasheva’s husband, Pavel Butorin, told The Associated Press shortly after her arrest that he hoped the U.S. government would use “every avenue and every means available to it” to win her release, including designating her as a wrongfully detained person.


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.”

Those scenarios — in which one detainee is released but not another — weigh heavily on officials in the U.S. government, said Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, speaking in a January interview with AP.

“Unless someone’s coming off a plane, onto a tarmac, in the United States of America and into the arms of their loved ones, we’re not getting a win,” Carstens said.

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. Prominent Soviet dissidents Vladimir Bukovsky and Natan Sharansky were released in these exchanges.

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

Carstens echoed her sentiment.

“These are tough cases. The fact is that Russia holds the key to the jail cell,” he told AP this week. “The United States continues to have conversations with allies and partners about what we can do to secure Evan and Paul’s freedom. These efforts are sensitive and it doesn’t help Evan and Paul to have negotiations in public. The United States will continue our efforts until we can bring Evan and Paul home.”


Tucker reported from Washington.


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