Russia says no deal made yet on Brittney Griner, Paul Whelan prisoner swap

Russian authorities said Thursday that negotiations for a possible prisoner exchange remain ongoing a day after reports surfaced that the U.S. had offered to trade Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for detained Americans Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.

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“The presidents of Russia and the United States discussed the question of exchanging Russian and American citizens imprisoned or detained in these two countries some time ago,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a statement. “They are instructed by the relevant agencies to launch talks on this subject. This is what the competent agencies are doing.”

She added that the talks “have yet to achieve tangible results.”

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he planned to speak with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, about the detentions of Griner and Whelan in the coming days. The conversation between the two will be the first since Russia sent troops into Ukraine in February.

“There was a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate” the release of Griner and Whelan, Blinken said at a news briefing. “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.”

The secretary of state declined to go into specifics about the proposal put forth by officials. However, CNN, Reuters, The New York Times and other news agencies have reported, citing unidentified sources, that authorities have offered to exchange Bout for Griner and Whelan.

In 2011, a jury in New York convicted Bout, who was known as the “Merchant of Death,” of conspiring to sell millions of dollars’ worth of weapons to a Colombia-based terrorism group that planned to kill Americans. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Griner pleaded guilty earlier this month to drug charges five months after officials at a Moscow airport said they found vape cartridges containing hashish oil – a substance banned in Russia – in her luggage. The Phoenix Mercury center was traveling to Russia to play basketball during the U.S. offseason. In court on Wednesday, she said she hadn’t meant to break any laws and that she believed she must have accidentally brought the vape cartridges with her in her rush to pack for her trip.

Whelan traveled to Russia as a tourist in 2018 and was arrested on allegations of espionage. In 2020, he was convicted of spying and sentenced to serve 16 years.

The State Department classifies both Griner and Whelan as having been wrongfully detained. The Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs is overseeing their cases and tasked with bringing them home.

Griner’s attorney, Maria Blagovolina, said in a statement obtained by Reuters that a prisoner exchange could only happen after a court verdict. Earlier, the basketball star’s attorneys said they expect her trial to continue until mid-August.

If the prisoner swap is approved, the exchange will be the second to take place under President Joe Biden. In April, officials announced the release of former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, who had been convicted two years earlier of assaulting two Russian police officers and sentenced to nine years in a prison camp. In exchange, officials commuted the sentence of Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who had been convicted in 2011 of conspiring to traffic more than $100 million worth of cocaine and sentenced to serve 20 years in prison.