Secretary of State Anthony Blinken revealed on Wednesday that the United States has offered to release a Russian arms dealer imprisoned in the United States in exchange for the release of WNBA superstar Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, both U.S. citizens currently being held by the Russian government. Blinken added that the U.S. had presented a “substantial proposal” for the release of Griner and Whelan, who have been classified as “wrongfully detained” by the Department of State.
Blinken said at a State Department news conference on Wednesday that President Joseph Biden was “directly involved” and had approved the proposal. He did not specifically confirm that Bout was part of the proposed exchange, saying that he “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,” according to a report from CNN.
Blinken continued that “in terms of the President, of course he was not only directly involved, he signs off on any proposal that we make, and certainly when it comes to Americans who are being arbitrarily detained abroad, including in this specific case.”
Undisclosed sources close to the matter told CNN that the president’s support for the prisoner exchange trumped opposition from the Department of Justice, which generally opposes such deals as a matter of course.
The Russian government was quick to point out that the U.S. proposal has not yet been accepted. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Thursday that “so far, there is no agreement on this issue.”
Blinken said that he planned to discuss the issue with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during a telephone call this week, adding that “my hope would be that in speaking to Foreign Minister Lavrov, I can advance the efforts to bring them home.”
“There is in my mind utility in conveying clear, direct messages to the Russians on key priorities for us,” Blinken said. “And as I mentioned, these include securing the return home of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.”
Griner Arrested for Cannabis Possession in February
Griner, the star center for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and a two-time women’s basketball Olympic champion, was arrested by Russian authorities at an airport outside Moscow in February after customs officials allegedly found vape cartridges containing less than one gram of cannabis oil in her luggage. Griner has pleaded guilty to the charges she faces, which could send her to prison for up to 10 years. Her trial continues at a courthouse in the Moscow suburb of Kimki as authorities hear additional testimony before deciding her fate.
Whelan has been held by Russian authorities since 2018 on espionage charges. If the offer from the Biden administration is accepted by the Russian government, Griner and Whelan would be exchanged for Viktor Bout, a Russian convicted of arms trafficking in 2018 who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States.
A senior Biden administration official said that the Russian government was unresponsive to the “substantial offer” presented in June, adding that “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 official said. “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 official did not reveal the conditions of the offer, saying it was in Russia’s “court to be responsive to it, yet at the same time that does not leave us passive, as we continue to communicate the offer at very senior levels.”
National Security Council Strategic Coordinator for Communications John Kirby said on Wednesday that Biden administration officials had spoken with the families of Griner and Whelan before Blinken revealed the prisoner exchange offer. He added that the White House is focused on bringing the two Americans home.
“We urge the Russians to move positively on that proposal, so we can get these two individuals home,” Kirby said. “The details of it, I think, are best left between us and our Russian counterparts.”
Apparently unhappy with the Biden administration for making the offer public, the Kremlin noted that prisoner exchange deals are usually negotiated discreetly.
“We know that such issues are discussed without any such release of information,” Peskov told reporters during a conference call. “Normally, the public learns about it when the agreements are already implemented.”
Griner’s attorneys, Alexander Boykov and Maria Blagovolina, said that the WNBA star’s trial will have to conclude before an exchange can be negotiated.
“From a legal point of view, the exchange is possible only after a court verdict,” the lawyers said, as quoted by the Russian media outlet RBC. “In any case, we will be glad if Brittney is soon at home and we hope that this will happen.”