WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken revealed Wednesday that the United States “put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago” in talks with Russia to secure the basketball star’s release. ball Brittney Griner and another American detainee, Paul Whelan.
A person briefed on the negotiations said that in June the United States had offered to exchange a jailed Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, for Ms Griner and Mr Whelan, and that President Biden – who was under pressure growing policy to free the Americans – had backed the offer.
Speaking to reporters at a press conference in Washington, Blinken said the US and Russia had “communicated repeatedly and directly about this proposal” and that he planned to speak about it soon. directly to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov.
Mr. Blinken would not provide further details on the proposal, or outline a Russian response, saying he did not want to jeopardize sensitive negotiations with Moscow. Mr. Blinken last spoke with Mr. Lavrov, Russia’s top diplomat, in January at a meeting in Geneva, weeks before Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine led to an almost total closure of American diplomacy with Russia.
Mr. Blinken declined to confirm a CNN report that Mr. Biden had agreed to trade Mr. Bout, whose release the Kremlin had been demanding for years, for Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan. Known as the “Dealer of Death”, Mr. Bout is serving a 25-year federal prison sentence for conspiring to sell weapons to people who said they planned to kill Americans.
In response to a question last week about Mr Bout’s potential swap, William J. Burns, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, speaking at the Aspen Security Forum, did not seem enthusiastic , calling Mr. Bout a “creep”.
Mr. Bout, 55, is a former Soviet military officer who made his fortune in the global arms trade before being caught in a federal sting operation. Russian officials have pressed her case for years, and in recent weeks Russian media had directly linked her case to that of Ms Griner.
Russia has held Ms Griner, 31, since mid-February when she was arrested at a Moscow airport on charges of hash oil found in her luggage. She pleaded guilty to the drug charges against her and said during a court appearance outside Moscow on Wednesday that she accidentally packaged a small amount of the cannabis-related substance, which she uses under the direction of a doctor to manage the pain. Russia has notoriously strict drug laws.
Mr Whelan, 52, a former executive of a navy and security company, was detained in a Moscow hotel in 2019 and charged with espionage. The State Department classified Mr. Whelan and Ms. Griner as “wrongfully detained” and referred their cases to a special hostage affairs office.
In a statement, Mr Whelan’s brother David said the family had only just learned of the US proposal.
“Our family appreciates that the Biden administration is seeking Paul’s release using the resources available to them,” he said. “We hope that the Russian government will respond to the US government and accept this concession or another concession that will allow Paul to return home to his family.”
Ms Griner’s Russian defense team said it learned of the US offer from the news and did not participate in the discussions. From a legal point of view, the exchange of prisoners is only possible after the court’s verdict, the lawyers said.
“In any case, we would be really happy if Brittney could come home and hope it will be soon,” said one of her lawyers, Maria Blagovolina.
While declining to discuss specifics, Blinken said the US government was trying to balance the imperatives of releasing prisoners wrongfully detained around the world, while working “to strengthen the global norm against these arbitrary detentions, against this which is truly an awful practice”.
Critics say prisoner exchanges encourage foreign governments and terrorist groups to arrest or kidnap Americans. But the United States struck a deal with Moscow in April, returning a convicted Russian drug trafficker in exchange for Trevor Reed, a former US Marine arrested in Moscow in 2019 for assaulting a police officer. Biden administration officials suggested the trade was an exceptional case made urgent by Mr. Reed’s failing health.