Russia silent on Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan over possible prisoner swap


RIGA, Latvia — Russia met a proposal to release jailed U.S. nationals WNBA star Brittney Griner and security consultant Paul Whelan with a cold silence on Thursday.

Russian front pages and state media did not announce that Washington had made a “substantial offer” to Russia to secure the release of Phoenix star Mercury Griner, on trial in Moscow for drug trafficking, and US sailor Paul Whelan, who was convicted by Russian authorities in 2020 of espionage and sentenced to 16 years of hard labor.

There has been little public reaction from officials as Moscow keeps its cards close to its chest. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told state media late Wednesday that he had no comment.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that the possible deal was proposed “weeks ago” but did not elaborate on its terms or whether there had been a concrete response.

Blinken’s comments fueled speculation that the deal could be a potential prisoner swap involving notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, 55, nicknamed the “dealer of death”.

Bout, whose savage exploits once inspired a Hollywood film starring Nicolas Cage, is serving a 25-year sentence in Illinois for conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals and selling weapons to terrorists.

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The Kremlin has long pushed for Bout’s release since his arrest in Thailand in 2008, saying his conviction in a New York court in 2011 was “unlawful”. Blinken would not say whether Bout was part of the deal offered to Russia.

In a dramatic shift in diplomatic demeanor, Blinken also said he would speak to his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov “in the coming days” in what would be their first call since the invasion of Israel. Ukraine on February 24. the release of detained Americans, among other pressing issues such as grain and gas.

“A few weeks ago there was a substantial proposal on the table to facilitate their release. Our governments have repeatedly and directly communicated on this proposal,” Blinken told reporters. “And I will use the conversation to follow up personally and hopefully lead us to a resolution.”

Who is Viktor Bout, the Russian arms dealer targeted by the rumor of a prisoner exchange?

If that happens, the prisoner swap would be the second such deal made by the Biden administration.

In April, former US Marine Trevor Reed, convicted in 2020 of assaulting two Russian police officers, returned home in exchange for the release of Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was jailed for drug trafficking in the US .

The exchange showed that Washington and Moscow could still reach agreements even amid the Ukraine war and White House efforts to economically and politically isolate Russia on the world stage.

Former Russian Marine and Pilot Freed in US-Russia Prisoner Swap

Griner, 31, who played in a Russian league during the WNBA’s offseason, has been detained since February on drug charges when Russian authorities found two cannabis oil vape cartridges in her luggage at the airport.

Griner pleaded guilty to the charges this month and told a Moscow court on Wednesday that she had no intention of bringing the vape cartridges to Russia and was rushed and stressed during the process. ‘packaging. She must then appear in court on August 2 and faces up to 10 years in prison.

Whelan, 52, denies the espionage charges against him and says he was set up. His twin brother David Whelan, tweeted “fingers crossed” Wednesday after Blinken’s comments.

During the April swap for Reed, Biden described the tough choices that come with prisoner swaps. “The negotiations that allowed us to bring Trevor home involved tough decisions that I don’t take lightly,” Biden said at the time.

Earlier this month, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned that demagoguery by US officials on prisoner swaps would only increase tensions and hamper possible interactions over prisoner swaps.

“We are aware of the attempts by the United States to escalate tensions publicly and draw attention to themselves, but they are not helpful in finding a practical solution to the problem,” he told reporters. Ryabkov hinted there were possibilities for talks of a prisoner swap, but said that could not happen until the end of formal legal proceedings.

Natalia Abbakumova contributed to this report.


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