ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 143

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Putin hints at possible swap of jailed WSJ reporter, urges US to push Ukraine talks

In first interview with Western media in two years, Russian president claims to Tucker Carlson that journalist Evan Gershkovich was ‘caught red-handed’ on espionage charges

Photo released by Sputnik news agency showing Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, being interviewed by former Fox News host Tucker Carlson at the Kremlin in Moscow, February 6, 2024. (Gavriil Grigorov/Sputnik, Kremlin, Pool Photo via AP)
Photo released by Sputnik news agency showing Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, being interviewed by former Fox News host Tucker Carlson at the Kremlin in Moscow, February 6, 2024. (Gavriil Grigorov/Sputnik, Kremlin, Pool Photo via AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin used an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson to urge Washington to recognize Moscow’s interests and persuade Ukraine to sit down for talks.

Putin also said that Russia stands ready to negotiate a potential prisoner exchange that would free Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was detained last March on espionage charges he denies, and hinted that Moscow wants the release of its agent imprisoned in Germany.

Most of the interview, released Thursday, focused on Ukraine, where the war is nearing the two-year mark. Putin repeated his claim that his invasion of Ukraine, which Kyiv and its allies described as an unprovoked act of aggression, was necessary to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine and prevent the country from posing a threat to Russia by joining NATO.

Putin pointed at Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s refusal to conduct talks with the Kremlin. He argued that it’s up to Washington to stop supplying Ukraine with weapons and convince Kyiv, which he called a US “satellite,” to sit down for negotiations.

“We have never refused negotiations,” Putin said. “You should tell the current Ukrainian leadership to stop and come to the negotiating table.”

Putin warned that the West will never succeed in inflicting a “strategic defeat” on Russia in Ukraine and rejected allegations that Russia was harboring plans to attack Poland or other NATO countries.

In this photo released by Sputnik news agency on February 9, 2024, Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures while speaking during an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, February 6, 2024. (Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

It was Putin’s first interview with a Western media figure since his full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago.

White House national security spokesman John Kirby tried to minimize the impact of Carlson’s interview ahead of its release: “Remember, you’re listening to Vladimir Putin. And you shouldn’t take at face value anything he has to say.”

Putin has heavily limited his contact with international media since he launched the war in Ukraine in February 2022. Russian authorities have cracked down on independent media, forcing some Russian outlets to close, blocking others and ordering a number of foreign reporters to leave the country.

Two journalists working for US news organizations — The Wall Street Journal’s Gershkovich and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Alsu Kurmasheva — are in jail.

US journalist Evan Gershkovich, arrested by Russia on espionage charges, stands inside a defendant’s cage before a hearing to consider an appeal on his extended pre-trial detention at the Moscow City Court in Moscow on September 19, 2023. (Photo by Natalia Kolesnikova / AFP)

Asked by Carlson whether Russia would release Gershkovich, Putin said Moscow is open to talks but repeated that the reporter was charged with espionage, an accusation Gershkovich has denied.

“He was caught red-handed when he was secretly getting classified information,” Putin said of Gershkovich, adding that he doesn’t exclude that the reporter could return home.

“There is no taboo on settling this issue,” Putin said. “We are ready to solve it but there are certain conditions that are being discussed between special services. I believe an agreement can be reached.”

He pointed to a man imprisoned in a “US-allied country” for “liquidating a bandit” who killed Russian soldiers during the fighting in the Caucasus: “He put our soldiers taken prisoners on a road and then drove a car over their heads. There was a patriot who liquidated him in one of the European capitals.”

Photo released by Sputnik news agency showing Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, speaking to former Fox News host Tucker Carlson at the Kremlin in Moscow, February 6, 2024. (Gavriil Grigorov/Sputnik, Kremlin, Pool Photo via AP)

Putin didn’t mention names, but he appeared to be referring to Vadim Krasikov, a Russian serving a life sentence in Germany after being convicted of the 2019 brazen daylight killing of Zelimkhan “Tornike” Khangoshvili, a 40-year-old Georgian citizen of Chechen ethnicity.

German judges who convicted Krasikov said he had acted on the orders of Russian federal authorities, who provided him with a false identity, a fake passport and the resources to carry out the hit.

The Wall Street Journal reaffirmed in a statement that Gershkovich “is a journalist, and journalism is not a crime,” adding that “any portrayal to the contrary is total fiction.”

“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,” it said.

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