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Hostage envoy says the U.S. can bring home two Americans detained in Russia

US State Department special envoy for hostage affairs Roger Carstens speaks during the Global Security Forum in Doha in March.
AFP via Getty Images
US State Department special envoy for hostage affairs Roger Carstens speaks during the Global Security Forum in Doha in March.

Updated April 13, 2023 at 11:20 AM ET

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan are among dozens of American citizens who are wrongfully detained or imprisoned by foreign governments. Russian authorities arrested Gershkovich on March 29 during a reporting trip to the provincial city of Yekaterinburg and accused him of spying. Wehlan has been jailed since the end of 2018, also on espionage charges.

"We will bring Paul Whelan and Evan Gershkovich home," Roger Carstens, the special U.S. envoy for hostage affairs, tells NPR's Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition.

Carstens, who was appointed in 2020 during the Trump administration, has worked on high-profile cases that include the prisoner swap that led to the return of WNBA star Brittney Griner. Griner was arrested last year at a Moscow airport and detained for nearly 10 months on drug-related charges.

"In the 26 months of the Biden administration, we've brought back 26 Americans," Carstens says.

As his team attempts to free Americans from detention in countries such as Russia, Iran or Venezuela, Carstens compares the speed and urgency of their work to a hospital emergency room.

"It's pretty much all the hostages, all detainees, all day long," he says. "We have 30 to 40 cases. The second I hang up this call, we're going to go right back into battle."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

On what Russia wants in exchange for Evan Gershkovich

We're not entirely sure. My sense is that we've done enough spadework to where we can start putting things in the realm of the possible. But here's something that we've had to tell interested parties pretty much in the three years that I've been in this job, and that is that we can't go into too much the 26 months of the Biden administration, we've brought back 26 Americans. And we will bring Paul Whelan and Evan Gershkovich home.

On what makes Paul Whelan's case harder to resolve

The Russians have tried to fashion him into being a spy, which he is not. They hold the key to the cell. The other side always does. And it should be easy, right? You should be able to go up and talk to the other side and come up with the release mechanism, as we call it, to generate that release that we're seeking. And yet the other side gets a vote in this.

On whether every release involves a trade or other incentive

We've had a few cases where we've not had to do that. I'd rather not say which countries, but we've had a few countries that instead of having to go through a hardcore negotiation or bargaining scenario, they actually came quickly to the fore and gave us those Americans back. And I have to admit I was a little surprised in some cases to achieve a release under those conditions, conditions that are essentially no conditions. In other countries you might have a sense of what they want. And then you get to the negotiating table and find out that you were absolutely off and that they want something entirely different. So every case is kind of different.

On whether he worries about incentivizing more prisoner taking

Absolutely. Every time we've received a release, we've done so after painstakingly going through the national security risks that come with getting that release. And so is that important to us and understanding that? Absolutely. Do we wrestle with it? A hundred percent. Do we actually do the background math, the spadework to understand what the risks are, for sure. But I think we found a way to make a lot of these things work for us. We're trying to keep doing something right to keep bringing Americans home.

Lilly Quiroz produced the audio version of this interview, and Jan Johnson edited the digital version. contributed to this story

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