President Joe Biden has reportedly offered to release a convicted Russian arms dealer nicknamed the “Merchant of Death” in exchange for the return of Americans Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.
More than five months after the 31-year-old star was seized at a Moscow airport and held on charges on possessing cannabis, the Biden administration has offered to return to Victor Bout, a convicted Russian arms trafficker serving a 25-year US prison sentence.
“In the coming days, I expect to speak with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov for the first time since the war began. I plan 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,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken
“We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate the 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 in the coming days.”
Mr Blinken would not confirm the US was putting up Victor Bout, when he spoke at the State Department on Wednesday, rather charactering the US’s offer as “substanial proposal” when he spoke.
“I don’t want to characterise it,” Mr Blinken said, when asked about the details of the US’s contact with Russia.
“My interest, my focus is on making sure that to the best of our ability we get to get to “yes”. We are very focused on getting Brittney and Paul home.”
He was also asked if the proposal being discussed with the Russians was similar to that which led to the return of Trevor Reed, a US citizen and former Marine who had been detained in Russia since 2019, after allegedly punching a Russian police officer while drunk.
Mr Reed was released in April exchange for the return to Russia of Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot.
“Because I want to make sure that the proposal before has a good chance to advance I’m just not going to get into it in public,” he said.
However, CNN said the offer being made by America was for Mr Bout, jailed in 2012 on charges that he schemed to illegally sell millions of dollars in weapons. Russia has always claimed the prosecution was poltically motivated.
“It takes two to tango. 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,” an official told the network.
“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.”
The deal must have been approved at the highest level of the US goverment. Mr Biden has become more personally involved in the case, as a result of lobbying by supporters of Ms Griner, and in particular her wife, , Cherelle.
The president spoke to her last month, and confirmed he had read a letter Ms Griner had sent him from jail.
Reports said the offer had been made over the objections of the Department of Justice.
Mr Blinken added: “We’ve demonstrated with Trevor Reed who came home a few months ago, that the president is prepared to make tough decisions. If it means the safe return of Americans.
The developments came as Ms Griner appeared again in a court in Russia. On Tuesday her lawyers told the court she had used cannabis oil in the US to treat pain, and taken it to Russia by error.
On Wednesdsy, she testified at her drug possession trial in Russia that an interpreter translated only a fraction of what was being said while she was detained at Moscow’s airport in February and that officials told her to sign documents, but “no one explained any of it to me”.
Additional reporting by Associated Press