Left, Brittney Griner smiles before Game Two of the 2021 WNBA Playoffs semifinals on September 30, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo by Ethan Miller via Getty Images. Paul Whelan, a Marine Corps veteran accused of espionage and arrested in Russia in December 2018, stands inside a defendants' cage as he waits to hear his verdict on June 15, 2020, in Moscow. Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev via Getty Images. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.
US officials confirmed this week that they made Russia a “substantial proposal” to ensure the release of Americans Brittney Griner and Marine Corps veteran Paul Whelan, but negotiators in both countries appeared to have made little progress as of Friday, July 29.
Sources briefed on the matter told CNN the Biden administration had offered to exchange convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for the two American hostages. Bout, a former Soviet military officer nicknamed the “Merchant of Death,” is serving 25 years in a US prison on charges of conspiring to kill American citizens and deliver anti-aircraft missiles, and providing aid to a terrorist organization.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken publicly announced Wednesday that the United States had presented Russia a deal that would free Griner and Whelan, who has been imprisoned in Russia for nearly four years. The State Department considers both Americans to be “wrongfully detained.”
A senior administration official told CNN the “substantial offer” was first presented in June, but the official suggested Russia had not been responsive so far.
Alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout arrives at a criminal court Oct. 5, 2010, in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo by Nicolas Asfouri via AFP/Getty Images.
Blinken said Wednesday that he planned to speak with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov about the issue in the coming days, but on Friday, Lavrov told reporters he had still not heard from Blinken.
“We have asked them to specify issues that they want to discuss,” Lavrov said, according to Interfax, a Russian news agency. “We have not received their answer yet, but obviously they have already spoken about it in the media.”
Lavrov and other Russian officials noted that the question of exchanging American and Russian prisoners was discussed more than a year ago at a meeting between President Joe Biden and Russia’s Vladimir Putin and that the “relevant agencies” were continuing talks.
“Nevertheless, I will listen to what [Blinken] has to say,” Lavrov said.
Considered by many to be the greatest female basketball player of all time, Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, WNBA and NCAA champion, and seven-time WNBA All-Star. She is the only player in NCAA history, male or female, to amass at least 2,000 points and 500 blocked shots, and she was the first overall pick in the 2013 WNBA draft. Wikimedia Commons photo by Lorie Shaull.
Griner — a two-time Olympic gold medalist, WNBA and NCAA champion, and star center for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury — was detained Feb. 17 at a Moscow airport after customs agents allegedly found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage. One week later, Russia invaded Ukraine.
Griner pleaded guilty earlier this month to drug charges — which carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison — telling a judge she accidentally left the cartridges in her luggage and did not intend to break Russian law. But experts said the case could still drag on for weeks and would almost certainly have to conclude before a prisoner swap is finalized.
Whelan, a 52-year-old corporate security executive from Michigan who received a bad conduct discharge from the Marine Reserves in 2008, was arrested in Russia in December 2018 on espionage charges that both he and the US government maintain are false. In 2020, he was convicted and sentenced to 16 years of hard labor.
Whelan’s twin brother David told Good Morning America Thursday that the family was not worried by Russia’s slow response to the United States’ offer.
Paul Whelan, a 52-year-old Marine Corps veteran, was arrested in Russia in December 2018 on espionage charges that both he and the US government maintain are false. Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev via AFP/Getty Images.
"We have been working on this for over three and a half years, Paul's been detained for 1,300 days, and so a couple of weeks really don't seem that long in that perspective," he said.
David Whelan also thanked Griner’s supporters for being “very gracious in including Paul’s case” in their calls for Griner’s freedom.
"It's been a huge help for someone like Paul, who doesn't have the same celebrity," he said.
Whelan was left out of a prior prisoner swap in April that freed another Marine Corps veteran. Trevor Reed spent nearly 1,000 days as a prisoner in Russia after being convicted of assaulting police officers after an episode of public drunkenness on evidence that US Ambassador John Sullivan called “laughable.”
Trevor Reed, a former presidential guard Marine, was released from a Russian jail this week after nearly 1,000 days of imprisonment on what US officials have called “laughable” charges. Photos courtesy Reed family. Trevor Reed, a former presidential guard Marine, was released from a Russian jail Wednesday, April 27, 2022, after nearly 1,000 days of imprisonment on what US officials have called “laughable” charges. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.
Reed was released April 27 and has since criticized the Biden administration for not doing enough to free Griner and Whelan.
“[Whelan] needs to be the no. 1 priority there, just simply based off of the fact that he's been there the longest,” Reed told ABC News.
Both Blinken and White House spokesman John Kirby have declined to confirm specifics of the proposed deal, only reiterating that the issue is foremost in President Joe Biden’s mind and requires a delicate approach.
“There’s a balance to be achieved with each and every arrangement,” Kirby told reporters Wednesday. “The balance of getting folks home, but also making sure that our own national security is preserved, and that, clearly that we’re not encouraging hostage-taking in the future.”
Hannah Ray Lambert is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die who previously covered everything from murder trials to high school trap shooting teams. She spent several months getting tear gassed during the 2020-2021 civil unrest in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not working, Hannah enjoys hiking, reading, and talking about authors and books on her podcast Between Lewis and Lovecraft.
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