President Joe Biden has offered to release Viktor Bout, the notorious Russian arms dealer nicknamed the “Merchant of Death,” from US custody in exchange for the return of Americans Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, according to multiple Biden Administration officials.
John Kirby, the National Security Council’s coordinator for strategic communications, told reporters at the daily White House press briefing on Wednesday that the prisoner swap offer was communicated to Russian officials “several weeks ago”, but would not say whether Moscow had been receptive to the proposal.
“We certainly hope that that Russia will favourably engage on it, but I don't want to get into more detail about that,” he said. “We believe that this is a serious proposal, and we want the Russians to take it seriously as well”.
The offer to return Bout, who is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence for arms trafficking, comes more than five months after Ms Griner, a 31-year-old WNBA star, was seized at a Moscow airport and held on charges on possessing cannabis.
Mr Kirby said the cases of Ms Griner and Mr Whelan — a former US marine who has been jailed in Russia on espionage charges since 2018 — have been “at the top of the mind for the President and for his whole national security team”. He also stressed that the Biden Administration remains “focused” on “all Americans who are held hostage and wrongfully detained around the world”.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken also alluded to the pending prisoner swap at a State Department briefing on Tuesday. He said he expects to speak with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov “in the coming days”, the first such conversation between the two diplomats since Russia invaded Ukraine.
“I plan to raise an issue that's a top priority for us: The release of Americans, Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner, who have been wrongfully detained and must be allowed to come home,” he said.
“We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate the release. Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal and I'll use the conversation to follow up personally and I hope, move us toward a resolution in the coming days.”
Neither Mr Kirby nor Mr Blinken would confirm the US was offering to release Bout in exchange for Ms Griner and Mr Whelan. Instead, both would only characterise the American offer to Moscow as “substanial”.
“I don’t want to characterise it,” Mr Blinken said, when asked about the details of the US’s contact with Russia.
“My interest, my focus is on making sure that to the best of our ability we get to get to “yes”. We are very focused on getting Brittney and Paul home.”
He was also asked if the proposal being discussed with the Russians was similar to that which led to the return of Trevor Reed, a US citizen and former Marine who had been detained in Russia since 2019, after allegedly punching a Russian police officer while drunk.
Mr Reed was released in April exchange for the return to Russia of Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot.
“Because I want to make sure that the proposal before has a good chance to advance I'm just not going to get into it in public,” he said.
Earlier on Wednesday, CNN reported that the offer being made by America was for Bout, who has been jailed since 2012 after he was convicted on charges stemming from a scheme to illegally sell millions of dollars in weapons. Russia has always claimed the prosecution was poltically motivated.
“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,” an official told the network.
“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 deal must have been approved at the highest level of the US goverment. Mr Biden has become more personally involved in the case, as a result of lobbying by supporters of Ms Griner, and in particular her wife, Cherelle.
The president spoke to her last month, and confirmed he had read a letter Ms Griner had sent him from jail.
Reports said the offer had been made over the objections of the Department of Justice.
Mr Blinken added: “We’ve demonstrated with Trevor Reed who came home a few months ago, that the president is prepared to make tough decisions. If it means the safe return of Americans.
Ms Griner is a double Gold medal winner at the Olympics. She is usually plays as centre for the Phoenix Mercury, but also for Russia’s UMMC Ekaterinburg in the off-season.
The developments came as Ms Griner appeared again in a court in Russia. On Tuesday her lawyers told the court she had used cannabis oil in the US to treat pain, and taken it to Russia by error.
On Wednesdsy, she testified at her drug possession trial in Russia that an interpreter translated only a fraction of what was being said while she was detained at Moscow's airport in February and that officials told her to sign documents, but “no one explained any of it to me”.
Additional reporting by Associated Press