washington — The White House said Thursday that it is preparing a new proposal to Russia to secure the release of journalist Evan Gershkovich and another jailed American.
“We’re working hard to see what we can do to get another proposal that might be more successful,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters. The Kremlin rejected a previous proposal.
Wall Street Journal reporter Gershkovich has been imprisoned since March on espionage charges that he, his employer and the U.S. government vehemently deny. Gershkovich’s jailing underscores Moscow’s years-long crackdown on press freedom, experts say.
The other American is Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who was arrested in Moscow in 2018 and is currently serving a 16-year sentence on spying charges that he and the U.S. government deny.
“We’re always heartened to see signs that the government is working on Evan and Paul’s release. We hope very much that those efforts will bear fruit soon,” Paul Beckett, an assistant editor at the Journal, told VOA. Beckett is leading the newspaper’s campaign to secure Gershkovich’s release.
The news from the White House came one day after Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington is “very actively working” on securing the release of Gershkovich and Whelan.
“With regard to Russia and Evan and Paul Whelan, all I can say is this: We are very actively working on it, and we will leave no stone unturned to see if we can’t find the right way to get them home, and to get them home as soon as possible,” Blinken said during a year-end news conference on Wednesday.
The State Department said earlier this month that Russia rejected a “substantial” proposal to free Gershkovich and Whelan.
Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow wants “to reach an agreement” with Washington on the release of Gershkovich and Whelan.
“We want to reach an agreement, and these agreements must be mutually acceptable and must suit both sides. We have contacts with our American partners in this regard, and there is an ongoing dialogue,” Putin said in his first public remarks on Gershkovich.
The Journal reported in September that Moscow is seeking the return of Russian assassin Vadim Krasikov, currently jailed in Germany, possibly in exchange for Gershkovich and Whelan.
In announcing a prisoner exchange with Venezuela on Wednesday, U.S. President Joe Biden said in a statement that his administration will continue to prioritize freeing detained Americans.
“We also remain deeply focused on securing the release of the hostages in Gaza and wrongfully detained Americans around the world, including Evan Gershkovich and Paul Whelan,” Biden said in a statement.
The Poynter Institute on Thursday named Gershkovich its Media Person of the Year.
“Gershkovich represents the dangers of being a journalist, but also provides inspiration, showing there are those willing to dedicate their lives to shining a light on the truth for the entire world to see,” Poynter said in announcing the distinction.
Gershkovich is set to remain in pretrial detention until at least January 30 while he waits for a trial. He faces up to 20 years in prison.
Absent from these recent statements from top U.S. leaders about freeing Gershkovich and Whelan, however, was a mention of journalist Alsu Kurmasheva. The dual U.S.-Russian national has been jailed in Russia since October.
A Prague-based editor at VOA’s sister outlet Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Kurmasheva stands accused of failing to register as a foreign agent and spreading false information about the Russian military. Kurmasheva and her employer reject the charges, which carry a combined maximum sentence of 15 years.
Kurmasheva’s family and employer, as well as press freedom groups, have for weeks called on the U.S. State Department to declare her wrongfully detained, which would open up additional resources to help secure her release.
A State Department spokesperson previously told VOA that it “continuously reviews the circumstances surrounding the detentions of U.S. nationals overseas, including those in Russia, for indicators that they are wrongful.”
Both Gershkovich and Whelan have been declared wrongfully detained.
Kurmasheva traveled to Russia in May for a family emergency. When she tried to leave the country in June, her passports were confiscated and she was waiting for them to be returned when she was detained in October.
The Russian Embassy in Washington did not immediately reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.
Some information for this report came from Agence France-Presse.