The Biden administration has proposed returning convicted arms merchant Viktor Bout to Russia in exchange for the release of detained Americans Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, according to a report Wednesday.
“We communicated a substantial offer that we believe could be successful based on a history of conversations with the Russians,” a senior administration official told CNN. “We communicated that a number of weeks ago, in June.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby declined to confirm or deny Wednesday that the potential swap involved Bout.
Known as the “Merchant of Death,” Bout is serving 25 years in a US prison after he was convicted in 2011 of conspiracy to kill Americans, providing aid to a terrorist organization, and other charges.
According to CNN, President Biden has come around to support an exchange for Bout after months of internal debate, overriding opposition by the Justice Department.
The official said it was up to Russia to respond to the proposed swap, “yet at the same time that does not leave us passive, as we continue to communicate the offer at very senior levels.”
“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,” the person added. “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.”
Blinken said Wednesday he will soon meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for the first time since Moscow invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.
The secretary said he would “raise an issue that’s a top priority for us — the release of Americans Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner, who’ve 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.”
“I can’t and won’t get into any of the details of what we proposed to the Russians over the course of so many weeks now,” Blinken added.
“We’ve conveyed this [offer] on a number of occasions, and directly to Russian officials. And my hope would be that in speaking to Foreign Minister Lavrov, I can advance the efforts to bring them home.”
Kirby said later Wednesday that talks about the potential swap were “actively happening now” but wouldn’t elaborate on whether the discussions involved releasing Bout, saying “details are best left between us and our Russian counterparts.”
“We certainly hope that Russia will favorably engage on it,” Kirby added of Washington’s offer.
Griner, a star of the WNBA, has been locked up in Russia since February on drug possession charges, to which she pleaded guilty earlier this month. Whelan, a former US Marine, is serving a 16-year sentence after being arrested in Moscow on espionage charges in 2018.
Families and friends of the two Americans have ramped up pressure on the White House to secure their release. Biden recently spoke by phone with Griner’s wife and Whelan’s sister to update them on the administration’s efforts to free their relatives.
Trevor Reed, another former US Marine who was released from Russian prison in March, told NBC News Tuesday that he felt the White House was “not doing enough” to spring Griner and Whelan.
“There’s two Americans who are sitting in there for nothing,” Reed said, “and you know, if it takes letting go of an actual criminal, who has already sat in American prison for I think, almost twenty years you know, that seems like it’s worth it to me.”
Steve Zissou, Bout’s lawyer, has said Russia sees securing the release of the former Soviet military officer as a high priority and suggested the Kremlin might be amenable to a swap.
“It has been communicated to the American side very clearly that they’re going to have to get real on Viktor Bout if they expect any further prisoner exchanges,” Zissou told the New York Times earlier this month. “My sense of this is that no American is going home unless Viktor Bout is sent home with them.”
This is a developing story.