Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated on Thursday that he would be willing to consider releasing detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in exchange for the freedom of a convicted murderer serving a life sentence for assassinating a man in Germany.
Putin, speaking to former Fox News personality Tucker Carlson in an interview broadcast on the social media platform X, appeared to be referring to Vadim Krasikov. A native of Kazakhstan, Krasikov was convicted in 2021 of murdering Zemlikhan Khangoshvili, a former Chechen insurgent leader who had fought against the Russian invasion of Chechnya.
Putin has in the past used high-profile American prisoners as bargaining chips to secure the release of Russians convicted of crimes overseas. In 2022, Russia released U.S. professional basketball star Brittney Griner in exchange for the release of notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Gershkovich, who was detained in March 2023, has been held in a Russian prison on accusations of espionage, which Putin restated in his interview with Carlson. Gershkovich and The Wall Street Journal both adamantly deny that he is a spy. The U.S. State Department has publicly declared Gershkovich to be “wrongfully detained.”
The man Putin is seeking to have released was arrested in Germany in 2019, following a brutal public murder conducted in broad daylight.
On August 23, 2019, according to German authorities, Krasikov entered Berlin’s Kleiner Tiergarten, a public park, riding a bicycle. He approached Khangoshvili, removed a handgun from a bag, and shot his victim in the back. With Khangoshvili disabled on the ground, Krasikov dismounted the bicycle, and in full view of witnesses, including children, shot him twice more in the head.
Prosecutors said Krasikov then mounted his bicycle and pedaled away, stopping along the banks of the Spree River nearby to change clothing, remove a wig, and use an electric razor to shave off part of his beard. He threw his disguise, his bicycle, and his weapon into the river. Witnesses who observed him alerted police, and he was apprehended shortly thereafter.
Identification and trial
When he was taken into custody, Krasikov was traveling with official Russian documents identifying him as “Vadim Sokolov,” but a lack of publicly available information about Sokolov made authorities suspect that it was an assumed identity.
Over time, and with the assistance of open source investigative organizations, German authorities eventually identified the suspect as Vadim Nikolaevich Krasikov. At one point, Krasikov had been wanted on suspicion of the 2013 murder of a Russian businessman in Moscow, in which the killer also approached his victim on a bicycle and shot him to death before riding away.
The Russian government named Krasikov as a suspect and, through Interpol, issued an international arrest warrant for him. However, the warrant was canceled the next year, though no announcement was made regarding the apprehension of a suspect.
German prosecutors said that they believed Krasikov had been acting under orders from the Russian government in the Berlin attack, and in addition to charging him with murder, formally complained to the Russian government and expelled two Russian diplomats.
Krasikov was found guilty of Khangoshvili’s killing and sentenced to life in prison.
Putin described murder
In his conversation with Carlson, Putin did not contest Krasikov’s role in the murder for which he has been charged.
“Let me tell you a story about a person serving a sentence in an allied country of the U.S,” Putin said. “That person, due to patriotic sentiments, eliminated a bandit in one of the European capitals.”
Putin went on to accuse Khangoshvili of committing atrocities as a member of the anti-Russian insurgency in Chechnya, and to once again describe Krasikov as a “patriot.”
Doubts about seriousness
David J. Kramer, the executive director of the George W. Bush Institute and a former deputy secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told VOA he doubts Putin really expects the Krasikov-for-Gershkovich swap to happen.
“[Putin] seems to attach importance to his agents who carry out orders, whether they do them badly or not — that they are loyal enough to carry them out does seem to matter to him,” Kramer said. “But at the end of the day, I think he’s just trolling.
“If he were serious about it, he wouldn’t be broadcasting it in an interview with Tucker Carlson. He’d be having his officials convey it through diplomatic channels, to try to get it done. The Germans have made clear they are not going to release that guy.”
More likely, Kramer said, is that Putin is trying to cause additional headaches for the Biden administration and friction between the U.S. and Germany.
“They’re negotiating with somebody who seizes innocent Americans and holds them hostage, perhaps as leverage points and bargaining material for releasing people who are clear criminals,” Kramer said. “And so, in this case, it’s going to be very difficult.”