The Biden administration is offering to release a convicted Russian arms dealer in exchange for the freedom of controversial basketball star Brittney Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan, who are both detained in Russia.
The arrangement has been the subject of speculation in the media, but this is the first time the White House has publicly confirmed it.
Biden offers Griner and Whelan for a Russian arms dealer
The Biden administration’s top diplomat, Antony Blinken, said a “substantial proposal” was made weeks ago. A person told the New York Times that Biden personally backed the deal.
Blinken said he would discuss the matter with his Russian counterpart during a phone call next week. The two haven’t spoken since January, before the war in Ukraine began.
Russia has long pushed for the release of Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death.” He is serving a 25-year sentence for trying to sell millions of dollars’ worth in weapons to U.S. federal agents posing as Colombian terrorists.
Reports began to surface earlier this year that the White House was discussing swapping Bout for Griner, a women’s basketball star and two-time Olympic gold medalist who has attracted controversy for kneeling during the national anthem. She is currently on trial for drug smuggling in Russia.
The Biden administration considers Griner, who has pled guilty to carrying illegal hash oil, “wrongfully detained.” She maintains the drugs were prescribed by a doctor and that she did not bring them into Russia on purpose.
The Biden administration also considers Whelan, a former Marine convicted two years ago of espionage, wrongfully detained. He is serving a 16-year sentence in Russian prison.
Whelan had traveled to Russia for leisure for years before his arrest in 2018 at a Moscow hotel, where he says a Russian intelligence officer planted a flash drive of state secrets in his pocket.
Biden reached out to Whelan’s family for the first time earlier this month after the family complained that Griner was receiving more attention from the White House than Whelan. The Whelan family expressed their gratitude upon the news of the prisoner swap.
“Our family appreciates the Biden administration seeking Paul’s release using the resources it has available,” David, Paul Whelan’s brother, said. “We hope the Russian government responds to the U.S. government and accepts this or some other concession that enables Paul to come home to his family.”
Russia is staying cagey about the deal, seeing that Griner’s trial is still ongoing. A Kremlin spokesperson told the BBC that they would not comment until “after an agreement has been carried out.”