By Michael Ginsberg
The Biden administration offered to trade a convicted arms dealer to Russia as part of a prisoner exchange for WNBA star Brittney Griner and ex-Marine Paul Whelan, CNN reported Wednesday.
Viktor Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death,” was convicted of conspiring to sell weapons to communist guerrillas in Colombia in 2011 and is serving 25 years in federal prison. The Russian government has reportedly expressed interest in trading Griner, who pleaded guilty to cannabis possession July 7, and Whelan, sentenced on espionage charges in 2020, for Bout.
President Joe Biden approved the proposal to trade Bout for Griner and Whelan, both of whom the U.S. consider to be wrongly detained, CNN reported. His support reportedly contradicts the Department of Justice, which generally opposes prisoner transactions. (RELATED: American Political Prisoner Asks Russian Court To Serve Sentence In US: REPORT)
Big news — US offers to exchange Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms trafficker, as part of a potential deal to secure the release of two Americans held by Russia, Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, per @kylieatwood @evanperez @jmhansler https://t.co/STnz2HlG0X
— Manu Raju (@mkraju) July 27, 2022
“We communicated a substantial offer that we believe could be successful based on a history of conversations with the Russians,” a senior Biden administration official reportedly told CNN. “We communicated that a number of weeks ago, in June.”
“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 reportedly continued. “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 Russian government detained Griner in early March, claiming that Sheremetyevo Airport officials found hashish oil in her travel bag. She initially pleaded not guilty, but later admitted during her trial that she uses medical marijuana to treat basketball injuries.
Whelan was convicted of alleged espionage in 2020, two years after the Russian government purportedly found a flash drive containing classified information. Whelan has denied all charges against him, calling his trial a “sham.”
“This was done purely for political motive,” he said in 2021.
The U.S. has a history of swapping prisoners with Russia. The Biden administration traded convicted cocaine smuggler Konstantin Yaroshenko for Marine Trevor Reed in March. Reed was convicted on charges of endangering the “life and health” of Russian police officers.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby confirmed during his Wednesday press briefing that the White House proposed a prisoner exchange, although he declined to say who the U.S. offered in exchange for Griner and Whelan.
“We believe this is a serious proposal and we want the Russians to take it seriously as well,” Kirby explained.