The Biden administration has offered a deal to Russia aimed at bringing home WNBA star Brittney Griner and another jailed American, Paul Whelan.
People briefed on the matter told CNN that the U.S. has offered to exchange Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms trafficker serving a 25-year US prison sentence, as part of a deal for the two Americans.
The plan “received the backing of President Joe Biden after being under discussion since earlier this year” and Biden’s “support for the swap overrides opposition from the Department of Justice”.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he intended to discuss the matter on an expected call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov this week.
This would be his first time talking to his counterpart since before Russia invaded Ukraine, reported AP News.
“There is in my mind utility in conveying clear, direct messages to the Russians on key priorities for us. And as I mentioned, these include securing the return home of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan,” he said.
Whelan has been held by Russia for alleged espionage since 2018 and Griner has been in Russian custody for the last five months after authorities said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage.
Griner testified at her trial that she had no criminal intent in bringing the cartridges into the country and packed quickly to play in a Russian basketball league during the WNBA’s offseason, according to AP.
During a press conference Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that prisoner swaps are negotiated discreetly.
“We know that such issues are discussed without any such release of information,” he said. “Normally, the public learns about it when the agreements are already implemented”.
Peskov noted that “no agreements have been finalized” and would not provide further details.
Russian government officials also allegedly requested that a former colonel who was convicted of murder in Germany last year be included in the swap, said CNN.
Earlier this month, the Russians communicated rhat they wanted Vadim Krasikov released. He was convicted in “December of murdering a former Chechen fighter, Zelimkhan ‘Tornike’ Khangoshvili, in Berlin’s Kleiner Tiergarten in 2019 and sentenced to life in prison”.
Krasikov remains in German custody and the request was not formal, meaning the U.S. government did not view it as a legitimate counter to the first offer.