Putin says he agreed to idea of swapping Alexei Navalny for prisoners held in the West

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin said Sunday that he agreed with the idea of a prisoner swap involving opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who died in a penal colony, and “some people in prison in Western countries.”

Putin’s comments came after NBC News asked: “Mr. President, journalist Evan Gershkovich spent this election in prison; Boris Nadezhdin, who opposes your war in Ukraine, was not allowed to stand against you; and Alexei Navalny died in one of your prisons during your campaign. Mr. President, is this what you’d call democracy?”

Putin, who rarely speaks Navalny’s name, said in response that “several days before Mr. Navalny perished, I was told by some of my colleagues … that there is an idea to exchange Mr. Navalny for some people in prison in Western countries.”

“Believe me or not, the person talking to me hardly finished their sentence when I said: ‘I agree.’ But unfortunately, the thing that happened happened,” Putin added, speaking as he declared victory in the country’s elections.

Putin’s remarks came on the last day of a national election in which he claimed a landslide victory. His expected win, following a relentless crackdown on dissent, will extend his nearly quarter-century of rule for six more years. 

Navalny’s supporters have alleged that Putin had him killed to thwart an imminent prisoner swap that would have freed him and two Americans. Five sources told NBC News that such a deal was being negotiated but that it was not imminent when Navalny died Feb. 16 at age 47.

Putin said the swap would have had one condition — that Navalny never return to Russia.

On Monday, Putin’s spokesman Peskov stressed that the Russian leader had not confirmed a deal had been in place for Navalny.

“He said that an idea was put forward by one of the people about an exchange of Navalny, for which he potentially agreed and immediately told the person who put forward such an idea about this,” Peskov said, according to state news agency Ria.

Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, who is in Berlin, was offered the chance to come to Russia and see her husband “numerous times” but she chose to stay abroad, Peskov later told NBC News.

Since Navalnaya declared her ambition to continue her husband’s opposition life work, Kremlin propaganda has threatened her with arrest, investigation and even possible jail time upon returning to Russia.

Navalny, a lawyer and anti-corruption campaigner who led opposition to Putin for more than a decade, spent his last days in a Russian penal colony above the Arctic Circle. Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service said he died after having returned from a walk and saying he felt unwell.

In 2020, Navalny almost died after he was poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent while on a trip in Russia. He was taken to Germany for treatment and was arrested after he returned to Russia — spending his final years behind bars following a conviction on extremism-related charges.

His death has been widely blamed on the Kremlin. In a fiery speech at the White House the day Navalny died, President Joe Biden said he had “no doubt” Navalny’s death “was the consequence of something that Putin and his thugs did.”

The next week, Biden announced more than 500 sanctions he said were designed to hold Russia accountable for Navalny’s death and for the country’s war with Ukraine. The sanctions target people connected to Navalny’s imprisonment, as well as Russia’s financial and defense sectors, Biden said.

“They will ensure Putin pays an even steeper price for his aggression abroad and repression at home,” he said on Feb. 23.