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Russian oligarch went to Moscow in effort to broker complex prisoner exchange that included Navalny, sources say

A multi-country prisoner exchange that might have freed Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny was being discussed and progressing when he died last month, multiple sources have told CNN, and included the direct involvement of a Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich.

A two-year stop-start process exploring options to secure the release of Navalny began to accelerate when Abramovich visited Moscow in recent months, two of the sources said.

Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had also embraced early efforts to win Navalny’s freedom, according to several sources.

Abramovich, who is sanctioned in the West and spends much of his time in the United Arab Emirates, met a US official as ideas for the complex exchange involving as many as seven people took shape, according to one source close to the process. Abramovich has kept a connection with the Kremlin since the Russian invasion of Ukraine and was instrumental in early efforts at negotiating an end to the conflict.

One source familiar with Abramovich’s movements said that he had traveled to Moscow to meet with officials at the Kremlin. CNN has been unable to confirm independently when Abramovich went to Moscow, nor reports in independent Russian media on Friday that he met Russian President Vladimir Putin hours before the prison authorities announced that Navalny had died at a penal colony in Siberia on February 16.

However, a source close to Navalny’s team told CNN that on the evening of February 15 they had received word that a message had been delivered to Putin. In what form though, they were unable to say. A key aide to Navalny, Maria Pevchikh, said soon after he died that Abramovich had become involved in exploring a deal, and had “delivered the proposal to swap Navalny” to the Kremlin. She added that he was acting as “an informal negotiator in communication with American and European officials.”

The source familiar with Abramovich’s involvement said he was “flabbergasted” to hear that Navalny had died even as he pursued the exchange.

Navalny died aged 47 in an Arctic prison on February 16, sparking condemnation from world leaders and accusations from his aides that he had been murdered. - Getty Images
Navalny died aged 47 in an Arctic prison on February 16, sparking condemnation from world leaders and accusations from his aides that he had been murdered. - Getty Images

On February 27, 11 days after Navalny’s death, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov side-stepped questions about Abramovich’s involvement. Asked whether he knew whether Abramovich had discussed a prisoner swap with Putin, he said: “You can ask Abramovich’s representatives. This is not a question to us.”

One Western diplomat told CNN last week that on a scale of one to 10, the prospects of a swap had “reached seven or eight” by the time Navalny died at the IK-3 prison colony.

Even so, the proposal was still at an informal stage, according to several sources familiar with the process, and a deal did not appear imminent.

“The offer can only be made once it’s been accepted informally. That’s how it works in these negotiations,” he said.

A US official concurred, telling CNN: “There was no formal offer extended to Russia at the time of Navalny’s death.”

“Navalny’s release was not imminent before his sudden death,” the official added.

An Aspen meeting

Back in the summer of 2022, Hillary Clinton was approached by Christo Grozev, who has worked with the Navalny team for several years, at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado.

According to someone familiar with the meeting, Clinton told Grozev that she had followed his work with Navalny, which included revealing the identities of the FSB team that had poisoned Navalny. Clinton said she had also seen the documentary that Grozev helped to make about Navalny. The documentary, which won an Academy Award, was partly based on an investigation into Navalny’s poisoning in August 2020 by CNN and the independent investigative group Bellingcat.

Grozev told CNN that Clinton agreed to reach out to officials in the Biden administration with an idea: exchanging Navalny for a Russian linked to the security service, the FSB, who had been convicted of murder in Berlin. Another name discussed was Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. (Bout was subsequently freed by the US in December 2022 in exchange for American basketball star Brittney Griner, held in a prison colony in Russia after being convicted of cannabis possession.)

Clinton “initially passed on the message” to US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Grozev told CNN. A source confirmed Clinton had reached out to Sullivan. The National Security Council declined to comment.

Navalny adviser Pevchikh also said the Russian convicted of murdering a Chechen dissident in Berlin in 2019 was included in a proposed deal. Pevchikh said that “in early February, Putin was offered to exchange Vadim Krasikov, a killer and an FSB officer who is serving a sentence for murder in Berlin, for two American citizens and Alexey Navalny.”

German prosecutors said that Krasikov was sent by the Russian security services with a false identity to carry out the killing. He was sentenced to life in prison after his conviction in a Berlin court.

The Kremlin denied that he had been working on behalf of the state. But without naming Krasikov, Putin last month floated the idea of securing the release of a Russian “patriot” who he said was serving a life sentence for “liquidating a bandit” in Europe. Speaking to Tucker Carlson in Moscow, Putin implied the deal would be in exchange for the Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who has been charged with espionage in Russia.

The final framework of the proposed deal is unclear, but an individual close to the Navalny team said that an expanded proposal included the possible release of both Gershkovich and another American imprisoned in Russia, Paul Whelan, in addition to Navalny.

“We had to find a way to package the German asset [Krasikov] into an American negotiation,” the source close to the Navalny team said. The Russians had initially proposed that a German-Russian dual citizen held in Russia on espionage charges be exchanged for Krasikov, an offer flatly refused by the Germans.

It became a complex triangular arrangement, he said. “It had to be explained to the Americans that the only way for them to get Whelan and Gershkovich is if the Russians get Krasikov. But the Germans would only hand over Krasikov in exchange for Navalny.”

“The German government was very serious about it,” the Western diplomat told CNN last week. But the diplomat added that it was unlikely the Russians would have agreed to trade three valuable prisoners - Navalny, Gershkovich and Whelan – for one – Krasikov - and would have wanted to expand the deal.

“There are other places bad Russians are. The question was how to get everybody aligned, so various ideas were being thrown around,” the diplomat added. “You have to be creative.”

Another Russian who could be included is Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, an alleged Russian spy who has been charged by the US Department of Justice with fraud and other crimes and is being held in Brazil. Russian and American extradition requests have been declined by Brazilian authorities.

Getting the message to Putin was one of the greatest challenges, the individual close to the Navalny team told CNN. “There was a lot of interest at mid-level, but whenever it got to ‘Oh, who’s going to tell Putin?’ people chickened out.”

Abramovich, according to multiple sources, did not chicken out. But exactly when and how he delivered the informal proposal to the Kremlin, or to President Putin himself, is still not confirmed. Ultimately, the process did not move swiftly enough to save Navalny.

And his aides remain convinced that Putin ordered the killing of the opposition leader, a claim the Kremlin denies.

This story has been updated to include further comment from a US official.

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