Back at the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Brittney Griner, a professional basketball player who had been playing in Russia, was arrested at a Moscow airport on drug charges that the US considers wrongful. So far, Griner has been going through the Russian legal system, where she says she was made to sign papers that no one explained and that she was forced to use her phone to translate since she didn’t have a lawyer.
Now, there are reports that the Biden administration has made an offer of a prisoner swap to bring home Griner, along with Paul Whelan, an American who was arrested and convicted of being a spy. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed that the US had made “a substantial offer,” though he declined to go into specifics. Sources familiar with the deal have told CNN that, in exchange, the US will be turning over Viktor Bout, a Russian arms trafficker dubbed “the merchant of death” who was arrested for selling arms to a Colombian rebel group. Bout is currently serving a 25-year sentence.
There isn’t any word yet on whether Russia is approving of the deal, and no one is really disclosing explicit details yet.
“My hope would be that in speaking to Foreign Minister Lavrov, I can advance the efforts to bring them home,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters, referring to a meeting he has with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov this week. “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.”
“I still don’t understand to this day how [the vape cartridges] ended up in my bags,” Griner said. “With them being accidentally in my bags, I take responsibility, but I did not intend to smuggle or plan to smuggle anything into Russia.”
“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,” a US official told CNN. “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.”