President Joe Biden has been under increasing pressure to do something — anything — to secure the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner, who has been detained in Russia on drug smuggling charges since February.
It was revealed this week that Biden’s administration proposed a prisoner swap with Russia, but Russian officials insisted that there was no deal — though they are open to discussing one — and chided Biden’s team for negotiating publicly through the media instead of through discrete back channels, Fox News reported.
Reports indicate that the Biden administration has proposed a swap in which convicted Russian international arms dealer Viktor Bout would be returned to Russia in exchange for the release of Griner and retired U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who has been imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges since 2020.
Russia open but noncommital to proposed swap
During a Wednesday press briefing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken revealed that he intended to speak with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, for the first time since the invasion of Ukraine began and further intended to “raise an issue that’s a top priority for us: the release of Americans Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner, who have been wrongfully detained and must be allowed to come home.”
“We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release. Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal. And I’ll use the conversation to follow up personally and, I hope, move us toward a resolution,” Blinken added without any additional details on the proposal.
In response to Blinken’s proposal, Fox News noted that a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, acknowledged that talks had been ongoing but that “there has been no concrete result yet,” and added, “We proceed from the assumption that interests of both parties should be taken into account during the negotiations.”
Meanwhile, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Thursday that “no agreements have been finalized” and seemed to poke at the Biden administration for not keeping the proposed prisoner swap under wraps until a deal had been reached. “We know that such issues are discussed without any such release of information,” Peskov said. “Normally, the public learns about it when the agreements are already implemented.”
Griner and Whelan for Bout
According to ABC News, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov told reporters Friday that he was open to discussing the proposal with Blinken but made no commitments on a possible deal.
Speaking from the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, Lavrov said that he would arrange for a call with his counterpart once he had returned to Moscow and simply added, “I will listen to what he has to say.”
ABC noted that Griner was arrested at the Moscow airport in February after cannabis oil vape cartridges were found in her luggage and have since pleaded guilty to drug smuggling charges that could net her 10 years in a Russian prison.
Whelan, a retired Marine-turned-corporate security executive was arrested in Russia, charged and convicted of espionage, and sentenced to 16 years in prison.
As for Viktor Bout, CBS News reported that he is a former Russian soldier who became an international arms dealer dubbed the “Merchant of Death” for supplying weapons to conflicts around the globe and was arrested in a sting operation in Thailand and was sentenced to 25 years in a U.S. prison in 2011.