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Navalny was set for release in swap before he died, aide says

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny is escorted out of a police station on Jan. 18, 2021, in Khimki, Russia, outside Moscow, following the court ruling that ordered him jailed for 30 days.   (ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Henry Meyer Bloomberg News Bloomberg News

Alexey Navalny had been close to release in a prisoner exchange with the U.S. and Germany shortly before his death in an Arctic prison, a top aide to the Russian opposition leader said.

“Navalny was supposed to be freed in the coming days,” Maria Pevchikh said in a video statement posted Monday. Russian President Vladimir Putin was offered an assassin imprisoned in Germany in exchange for Navalny and two U.S. citizens, she said.

Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich was involved in the talks, which had reached a “final stage” after two years of negotiation on the eve of Navalny’s Feb. 16 death, according to Pevchikh. She accused Putin of ordering the killing of Navalny, because he was unwilling to let his most outspoken critic go free.

According to the video account, the swap involved Vadim Krasikov, who has links to Russia’s Federal Security Service, known as the FSB, and is serving a life sentence in Germany for the 2019 killing of a former Chechen rebel in a Berlin park. Pevchikh didn’t name the two Americans involved in the deal.

“Putin was clearly told that the only way to get Krasikov is to exchange him for Navalny,” said Pevchikh. Instead, he decided to “get rid of the bargaining chip” and “offer someone else when the time comes.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov didn’t immediately respond to a request to comment. Officials in Germany and the U.S. and a spokesman for Abramovich didn’t immediately respond to requests to comment.

The U.S. and Russia have been in talks on a swap involving Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich and businessman Paul Whelan. Gershkovich has been held in a Moscow jail since March last year after the FSB detained him on spying allegations while he was on assignment in Yekaterinburg. Gershkovich and the newspaper deny the charges.

Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, was sentenced to 16 years in 2020 on spying charges he denies.

U.S. President Joe Biden has laid responsibility on Putin for the death of 47-year-old Navalny. Prison authorities said the Kremlin critic fell ill after a walk in the remote prison camp, though they refused to allow Navalny’s family or lawyers to view the body for days.

They turned over Navalny’s body to his mother Lyudmila on Saturday after she had accused Russian authorities of pressuring her to agree to a secret burial.

Putin told conservative U.S. commentator Tucker Carlson in an interview this month that talks on swapping Gershkovich were under way, and hinted that he wanted Krasikov in return, without naming him.

The U.S. State Department said in early December it made a “new and significant” proposal to Russia for the release of Gershkovich and Whelan, but Moscow had rejected the offer.