In a rare move, the State Department has offered Russia a deal in hopes of securing the release of WNBA player Brittney Griner and another imprisoned American, U.S. Marine Corps veteran and former security executive Paul Whelan, the U.S. government claims are “wrongly detained” in the country.
Although Secretary of State Anthony Blinken did not disclose the terms of the proposed prisoner swap, a source close to the matter revealed to The New York Times that the U.S. was willing to trade convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for the jailed Americans. The move would mark the second time this year the Biden administration has negotiated with Russia to safely relinquish a U.S. citizen from Russian custody, following the release of Marine veteran Trevor Reed earlier this year.
“We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release,” Blinken told reporters Wednesday. “Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal, and I’ll use the conversation to follow up personally and, I hope, to move us toward a resolution.”
According to the Associated Press, President Joe Biden has signed off on the proposed deal. “The president and his team are willing to take extraordinary steps to bring them home,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby said of Griner and Whelan.
Griner, who plays basketball in Russia during the WNBA offseason, was arrested by Russian authorities in February after customs officials found two cannabis vape cartridges in her carry-on luggage. The two-time Olympic gold medalist pleaded guilty to drug smuggling charges earlier this month, but claimed she did not intend to bring the vape cartridges into Russia, stating that she packed them by mistake during frantic preparations for her trip. Maria Blagovolina, one of Griner’s lawyers in Russia, argued that the basketball star’s doctor-prescribed use of marijuana for chronic pain indicate she “may have used it for medical but not recreational purposes.”
Whelan, meanwhile, was detained in Moscow in 2018 and charged with espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison in June 2020. Russia has long pointed to Whelan’s multiple citizenships — he is also a citizen of the United Kingdom, Ireland and Canada in addition to the United States — and suspicious information contained on a flash drive as evidence of his epionage activities, AP reported in 2019.
Bout, the Russian citizen allegedly considered for release, is serving a 25-year sentence in federal prison for conspiring to sell firearms intended to kill Americans. The former Soviet military officer, known colloquially as “The Merchant of Death,” was arrested in a joint U.S.-Thai sting operation in Bangkok in 2008.