Navalny Was Part of Discussions on a Prisoner Exchange

Aides to Aleksei A. Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who died this month, asserted on Monday that he had been on the verge of being freed in a prisoner exchange with the West.

A Western official familiar with the negotiations said “early discussions” on the possibility of freeing Mr. Navalny through such a swap had been underway when Russian authorities reported him dead on Feb. 16. But the official pushed back on the Navalny team’s portrayal of the talks as having been in their final stages.

In a video posted to the Navalny team’s YouTube channel on Monday, a top aide to Mr. Navalny portrayed the prisoner-exchange talks as evidence of what she described as President Vladimir V. Putin’s motive to kill the opposition leader.

The aide, Maria Pevchikh, said that Western officials were in advanced talks with the Kremlin on a deal that would have released Mr. Navalny along with the two Americans imprisoned in Russia.

As part of that deal, Ms. Pevchikh said, Germany would have released Vadim Krasikov, the man convicted of killing a former Chechen separatist fighter in a Berlin park in 2019. Mr. Putin praised Mr. Krasikov in his interview with the former Fox News host Tucker Carlson this month, describing the convicted assassin as having been motivated by “patriotic sentiments.”

Ms. Pevchikh said in the video that the West had been insisting on Mr. Navalny’s release as part of any deal to free Mr. Krasikov, whom Western officials describe as a Russian intelligence agent. By killing Mr. Navalny, she said, Mr. Putin took the possibility of his release off the table, and he planned to “offer someone else when the time comes” in order to bring home Mr. Krasikov.

“Navalny was supposed to be free in the coming days,” Ms. Pevchikh, the chairwoman of Mr. Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, said in the video. She did not identify the two Americans she said would have been exchanged along with Mr. Navalny.

The Western official said that the discussions had involved swapping Mr. Navalny, Evan Gershkovich, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, and Paul Whelan, a corporate security executive and former Marine, in exchange for Mr. Krasikov.

But an agreement had not appeared imminent, and it was unclear how inclined Russia and Germany were to make such a trade.

“No formal offer had been made, but early discussions to this effect were underway,” the official said.

The circumstances of Mr. Navalny’s death remain shrouded in mystery. He died on Feb. 16 at a penal colony in the Arctic, according to the Russian authorities. The medical report on his death says he died of natural causes, according to Navalny aides.

After a dayslong dispute with the authorities over custody of his remains, his body was transferred to his mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, on Saturday, his spokeswoman said. But it remained unclear whether his family would seek to conduct an independent autopsy before his burial.

A Kremlin spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

A German government spokeswoman declined to comment when asked about the Navalny team’s assertions at a news conference on Monday.

Mr. Navalny himself was not aware of the details of the talks but knew his potential release through a prisoner exchange was being discussed, according to his spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh.

“He understood there were some talks going on, but he didn’t know any details,” Ms. Yarmysh said in a text message.

Ms. Pevchikh said that the Russian business tycoon Roman Abramovich had acted as a mediator in the West’s talks with Mr. Putin about a potential prisoner exchange to secure Mr. Navalny’s freedom. A spokeswoman for Mr. Abramovich did not respond to a request for comment.

The Navalny team’s new claims came as the plans for Mr. Navalny’s burial remained unclear. Ms. Yarmysh, his spokeswoman, posted to social media on Monday to ask for help in lining up a funeral hall for a service later this week.

“We are looking for a hall for a public farewell to Aleksei,” Ms. Yarmysh wrote. “Time: end of this workweek. If you have suitable premises, please contact us.”

Mr. Navalny’s aides say the Kremlin has sought to prevent his funeral from turning into a public event that could attract thousands of mourners. Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, denied that the Kremlin was involved.

“This is absolutely not our issue and not our prerogative,” Mr. Peskov told reporters on Monday. “The head of state does not regulate these issues in any way.”

Julian E. Barnes contributed reporting from Washington and Erika Solomon from Berlin.