The United States has offered to exchange Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms trafficker, as part of a potential deal with Russia to release WNBA star Brittney Griner and corporate security director Paul Whelan, according to CNN. President Joe Biden reportedly supports the move even though the Department of Justice is generally against prisoner trades.
The discussion has been happening for a few months already, but so far there is not an official response from Russia.
“It takes two to tango,” an unnamed senior administration official told CNN. “We start all negotiations to bring home Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained with a bad actor on the other side. We start all of these with somebody who has taken a human being American and treated them as a bargaining chip.
“So in some ways, it’s not surprising, even if it’s disheartening, when those same actors don’t necessarily respond directly to our offers, don’t engage constructively in negotiations.”
This fits with what Secretary of State Antony Blinken said publicly on Wednesday during a press conference at the Department of State. Blinken told reporters “we put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release.”
Blinken said he could not go into details of this “substantial proposal” and did not confirm or deny the reports on the Bout trade. He said he plans to speak with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov later this week, primarily to talk about the prisoners but also for a few other reasons.
“Here is what I can say,” Blinken said. “We’ve conveyed this on a number of occasions and directly to Russian officials. My hope would be that by speaking to Foreign Minister Lavrov, I can advance the efforts to bring them home.”
Blinken went on to explain that there were “two imperatives” when it comes to bringing home wrongfully detained Americans all over the world, including Russia.
“Of course we want to see this who are wrongfully detained be released and be able to return home,” he said. “At the same time, it’s important that we work to reinforce the global norm against these arbitrary detentions, against what is really a horrific practice. So we are working conservatively on both.”
Russia sentenced Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, to 16 years in prison on espionage charges back in 2020.
Griner has been in Russian custody since her arrest in February, when the Russian Federal Customs Service at the Sheremetyevo International Airport claimed to have found vape cartridges containing the marijuana concentrate hashish oil in her luggage. She pleaded guilty earlier this month, but her trial is still underway. Griner could face up to 10 years behind bars.
For a full explainer on Griner’s situation, click here.