President Biden offers convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan. Bout is serving 25 years in a U.S, prison. Biden hopes the deal will usher in the release of the two Americans held in Russia, according to people briefed on the matter.
After being under discussion since earlier this year, CNN was told by the sources that Biden backed the plan to trade Bout for Whelan and Griner. The Department of Justice, which is usually against prisoner swaps, opposition to the exchange is overridden by Biden’s support.
On Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “so far, there is no agreement on this issue.”
Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated a “substantial proposal” to Moscow was presented by the US “weeks ago” for Whelan and Griner, who the United States has classified as wrongfully detained.
Blinken said, speaking at a press conference at the State Department, that Biden was “directly involved” and gave his approval on the deal. Whether Bout was part of the deal was not confirmed by Blinken, saying he “can’t and won’t get into any of the details of what we proposed to the Russians over the course of so many weeks now,” he said, “in terms of the President, of course, he was not only directly involved, he signs off on any proposal that we make, and certainly when it comes to Americans who are being arbitrarily detained abroad, including in this specific case.”
This week, on an expected call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the matter is likely to be discussed by Blinken. The call will be the first with Lavrov since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. The top US diplomat told reporters, “my hope would be that in speaking to Foreign Minister Lavrov, I can advance the efforts to bring them home.”
“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,” he said.
Moscow has not been reactive to the “substantial offer” presented in June, implied a senior administration official telling CNN, “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,” the official said. “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.”
Specifics of the “substantial offer,” was not detailed by the official. It was in Russia’s “court to be responsive to it, yet at the same time that does not leave us passive, as we continue to communicate the offer at very senior levels,” they said.
Families of both Whelan and Griner have urged the white house to bring the Americans home. Using a prisoner exchange if necessary.
Although Griner pleaded guilty in early July to drug charges, she said she unintentionally brought cannabis into Russia, she testified in court on Wednesday. She faces up to 10 years in prison for the charges. According to US officials acquainted with the Russian judicial process and the internal workings of US-Russia negotiations, the basketball star’s trial will have to conclude before negotiations can be finalized.
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