Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced Wednesday that the Biden administration has proposed a prisoner swap that would bring home basketball star Brittney Griner, who has been in Russian jail for five months, and ex-marine Paul Whelan, who was accused of spying and has been detained since 2018. While Blinken did not name whom the U.S. would give up in the trade, CNN reports that the deal would involve the Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year sentence in a federal prison in Illinois.
“In the coming days I expect to speak with Russian Foreign Minister [Sergey] Lavrov for the first time since the war began,” Blinken said, referring to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February. He described the return of Griner and fellow detainee Paul Whelan as a “top priority,” saying that the State Department put a “substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate the release.” Three sources familiar with the swap also told CNN that President Joe Biden has approved the plan to bring Griner home.
Griner, who for years had been playing in a Russian basketball league to supplement her WNBA salary, was caught in February bringing two cartridges of hashish oil into Russia. She pleaded guilty earlier this month to drug-smuggling charges widely considered to be politically motivated. She now faces up to ten years in prison.
The Department of Justice generally does not approve of prisoner swaps. But according to CNN, Justice officials played along with a deal to move Viktor Bout after learning that it was supported by top State Department officials and the president himself. Known as the “merchant of death,” Bout is a former Soviet military translator who smuggled small arms throughout the world following the collapse of the U.S.S.R. (The Nicolas Cage movie Lord of War is loosely inspired by his career.) In 2011, he was convicted in Manhattan of conspiring to kill U.S. officials, attempting to acquire anti-aircraft missiles, and aiding a terrorist organization.
Paul Whelan, the other American prisoner in Russia, is a 52-year-old from Michigan who served in Iraq and was arrested in 2018 while visiting the country for a wedding. In 2020, he was convicted and sentenced to 16 years in Russian prison.