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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

US offers to swap Russian arms dealer for Griner and Whelan

The State Department is in negotiations to swap an imprisoned Russian arms dealer for Brittney Griner and another imprisoned American, Paul N. Whelan.

By Michael Crowley, Julian E. Barnes and Ivan Nechepurenko

The Biden administration has offered to free the imprisoned Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout to secure the release of Brittney Griner and Paul N. Whelan, two Americans imprisoned in Russia whom the State Department says were wrongfully detained, according to a person familiar with the negotiations.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that the United States had “put a substantial proposal on the table” and that he would soon press for the Americans’ return in his first conversation with his Russian counterpart since Russia invaded Ukraine five months ago.

Blinken’s comments represented the first time that the United States had confirmed that it had made a formal proposal to persuade Russia to release Griner, an American basketball star who has been detained for months on drug charges, and Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who was sentenced in Russia in 2020 to 16 years in prison on espionage charges.

The notion of trading Griner for Bout surfaced in Russian news media several weeks ago. U.S. officials would not publicly discuss the idea at the time and stressed their concern about potentially incentivizing the detention of Americans abroad by foreign actors looking to win concessions.

On Wednesday, however, Blinken said the two countries had “communicated repeatedly and directly” about the proposal, though he would not provide details or describe the Russian response, saying he did not want to endanger sensitive negotiations with Moscow.

The person briefed on the conversations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic negotiations, said the United States offered in June to trade Bout for Griner and Whelan, and that President Joe Biden — who has been under growing political pressure to free the Americans — backed the offer. The offer was first reported by CNN.

Bout, who is known as the “Merchant of Death,” is serving a 25-year federal prison sentence for conspiring to sell weapons to people who said they planned to kill Americans. The Kremlin has demanded his release for years.

Speaking at the State Department, Blinken said he expected to talk with Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, in the coming days and would urge him to accept the proposal. The two men last spoke in January at a meeting in Geneva, weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 led to a near-total shutdown of U.S. diplomacy with Russia. Blinken avoided so much as shaking Lavrov’s hand at a Group of 20 foreign ministers meeting in Bali earlier this month.

Biden has been under pressure to secure the freedom of Griner in particular, whose wife, Cherelle, and several Democratic-aligned political groups have publicly urged him to strike a deal to win her release. Biden spoke to Cherelle Griner this month.

In mid-July, WNBA players took the court at their All-Star Game wearing jerseys bearing Brittney Griner’s number, 42. And on Tuesday, NBC News aired an interview with Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine freed from a Russian prison in April after three years of detention, in which he said the White House was “not doing enough” to free Griner and Whelan.

William J. Burns, the CIA director, addressed talk of a potential prisoner swap during an appearance at the Aspen Security Forum last week.

“These are awful and shameful steps to hold American citizens for political leverage,” Burns said. “The Russians are quite coldblooded about this right now.”

Burns said it was unclear why the Kremlin has long been determined to secure the release of Bout, 55, a former Soviet military officer who made a fortune in global arms trafficking before he was caught in a federal sting operation.

“That is a good question because Viktor Bout is a creep,” Burns said. Some analysts believe that Bout enjoys loyalty from former criminal associates with continued influence at the Kremlin.

In 2010, Bout agreed to sell arms to undercover U.S. federal agents who said they belonged to Colombia’s FARC rebel group, which the United States classified at the time as a terrorist organization. Prosecutors said Bout did not object when the agents said they intended to use the weapons to kill American troops supporting Colombia’s military.

In an interview last month, however, the judge who sentenced Bout, Shira Scheindlin, said that Bout “was not a terrorist, in my opinion. He was a businessman.” She added that she felt the mandatory 25-year sentence she was forced to impose was too high and that a trade of Bout for Griner and Whelan would be reasonable.

A White House national security spokesperson, John Kirby, declined to provide more specifics about the U.S. proposal.

A senior administration official said Justice Department lawyers, who have long argued against releasing Bout, part of an institutional reluctance to trade away federal prisoners, voiced initial opposition to the deal but were overruled by Biden.

Blinken disclosed the existence of the proposal hours after Griner testified for the first time about her arrest, telling a Russian courtroom that she had been tossed into a bewildering legal system with little explanation of what was happening and what she might do to try to defend herself.

Griner described arriving in Russia after an exhausting 13-hour flight — soon after recovering from COVID — and finding herself in an interrogation in which much of what was being said remained untranslated. She said she was told to sign papers with no explanation of what they were.

Her case has taken on outside importance amid the lowest point in relations between Russia and the United States since the end of the Cold War. She arrived for the hearing with her wrists shackled in front of her, and flanked by Russian security agents, including some wearing bulletproof vests, their faces covered by balaclavas.

She has been accused by Russian authorities of having two vape cartridges of hashish oil in her luggage when she arrived at an airport near Moscow. Russia did not make her detention public until after it invaded Ukraine.

Griner, 31, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who plays for the Phoenix Mercury, had been traveling to Russia to play with a team in Yekaterinburg, about 900 miles east of Moscow, during the WNBA offseason.

In court Wednesday, Griner, testifying from an enclosed witness box, said she had been pulled aside during a luggage check in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, according to her lawyer, Aleksandr Boikov.

Griner “was surprised” that vape cartridges appeared in her luggage and that the interpreter she was provided translated “almost nothing,” Boikov said. A lawyer came to help after 16 hours of detention, he said.

Although Griner has already entered a guilty plea, the trial is expected to continue into August, her lawyers said. She faces a possible 10-year sentence. Her lawyers hope that her plea will make the court more lenient.

Whelan, 52, a former Marine and corporate security executive, was detained at a Moscow hotel in late 2018 and charged with espionage. The State Department has classified him and Griner as “wrongfully detained” and has referred their cases to a special hostage affairs office.

Griner’s Russian legal defense team said it had learned about the U.S. offer from the news and that it had not been participating in the discussions. From a legal perspective, the prisoner exchange is possible only after the court reaches a verdict, the lawyers said.

In a statement, Whelan’s brother, David, said the family was just hearing about the U.S. proposal but “appreciates” the administration’s efforts and hopes the Kremlin “accepts this or some other concession that enables Paul to come home to his family.”

A lawyer for Bout, Steve Zissou, declined to comment.

Blinken said the United States was trying to balance the imperatives of freeing wrongfully detained prisoners around the world, while “we work to reinforce the global norm against these arbitrary detentions, against what is truly a horrific practice.”

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