The Biden administration has formally asked Moscow to make a deal aimed at bringing home WNBA basketball star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, both of whom are imprisoned in Russia on dubious charges.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed Wednesday that U.S. officials presented Russia with a “significant proposal” weeks ago relating Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan, but declined to confirm reports that the Biden administration is proposing to swap the two for notorious Russian arms dealer Victor Bout, who is in prison in the United States.
A report by CNN Wednesday claimed that after months of internal debate, the administration decided recently to offer to exchange Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan for Bout, who is serving a 25-year sentence in Illinois for selling weapons to Marxist rebels in Colombia and conspiring to kill U.S. nationals.
The report, which cited unnamed sources “briefed on the matter,” said President Biden has embraced the plan for a prisoner swap, noting that his support would override opposition from the Justice Department.
The proposal comes at a time when Washington is leading a global push to sanction and isolate the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin for the decision to invade neighboring Ukraine in February. The U.S. and Russia have had only minimal diplomatic and economic contacts in the five months since then.
Openly pushing for such a trade may also represent a shift for the U.S. government, which has long resisted prisoner swaps out of concern they could encourage additional hostage-taking and promote false equivalency between wrongfully detained Americans and foreign nationals justly convicted in U.S. courts.
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Despite such concerns, U.S. officials engaged in a swap in April, when Marine veteran Trevor Reed was traded for jailed Russian pilot, Konstantin Yaroshenko. According to The Associated Press, the Reed-Yaroshenko trade appeared to open the door to similar resolutions in the future for the Biden administration, which has faced heavy political pressure to bring home Ms. Griner and other Americans designated as unjustly detained.
Mr. Blinken, who made his announcement during a State Department press conference Wednesday, told reporters he “can’t and won’t get into any of the details of what we’ve proposed to the Russians over the course of so many weeks now.”
However, he said he intends soon to personally raise the Griner and Whelan cases with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
In a sharp reversal of previous policy, Mr. Blinken said he expects to speak with his Kremlin counterpart later this week for the first time since the Ukraine war began in February.
“My hope would be that in speaking with Foreign Minister Lavrov, I can advance the efforts to bring them home,” Mr. Blinken said of Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan.
His comments marked the first time the Biden administration has publicly revealed any concrete action taken in an attempt to secure the release of Ms. Griner, who was arrested on drug-related charges at a Moscow airport in February and testified Wednesday at her trial currently playing out in a Russian court.
Mr. Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan, was sentenced by Russian authorities in 2020 to 16 years in prison on espionage charges. He and his family have vigorously asserted his innocence. The U.S. government has denounced the charges as false.
Mr. Blinken’s public announcement of a proposal to get Mr. Griner and Mr. Whelan out now — at a moment when the Biden administration has otherwise shunned Russia — reflects mounting pressure on the White House to address their cases and its determination to free them from Russian imprisonment.
The secretary of state told reporters that he has requested a phone call with Mr. Lavrov and that the Biden administration would like a response from Moscow.
Russia has for years expressed interest in the release of Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer once labeled the “Merchant of Death,” who was sentenced in 2012 on charges that he schemed to illegally sell millions of dollars in weapons.
Should a Blinken-Lavrov call take place, it will be their first direct conversation since Feb. 15, about a week before Russia invaded Ukraine.
Mr. Blinken said he would also be speaking to Mr. Lavrov about the importance of Russia complying with a U.N.-brokered deal to free multiple tons of Ukrainian grain from storage and warning him about the dangers of possible Russian attempts to annex portions of eastern and southern Ukraine.
Ms. Griner, 31, who had played basketball in Russia during the WNBA’s offseason prior to her arrest, acknowledged in court this month that she had vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage when she arrived in Moscow in February but contends she had no criminal intent and included the cartridges inadvertently in her luggage.
At her trial Wednesday, Ms. Griner said she did not know how the cannabis oil ended up in her bag but explained she had a doctor’s recommendation for it and had packed in haste. She said she was pulled aside at the airport after inspectors found the cartridges, but that a language interpreter translated only a fraction of what was said during her questioning and that officials instructed her to sign documents without providing an explanation.
Ms. Griner faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of transporting drugs.
Mr. Whelan’s family said Wednesday they had just been informed of the possible swap.
“Our family appreciates the Biden administration seeking Paul’s release using the resources it has available,” David Whelan, Mr. Whelan’s brother, said in a statement. “We hope the Russian government responds to the U.S. government and accepts this or some other concession that enables Paul to come home to his family.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.