The Biden administration has offered to exchange convicted Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout for the release of two Americans held by Russia in the form of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan. The offer was reportedly made a month ago.
Speaking to press on Wednesday, John Kirby said that “President Biden has been clear about the need to bring home every American who was held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad. And that includes, of course, Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan. A month ago, President Biden directed his national security team to pursue every avenue to bring Brittany home safely to a family or friends or loved ones or teammates.”
“The US government continues to work aggressively pursuing every avenue to make that happen,” Kirby said. “Now as part of those efforts, we made a substantial offer to secure the release of Paul Whelan and Brittany Reiner and to bring them home, just as Secretary Blinken mentioned earlier.
“I would add that a high level administration official, Deputy Homeland Security Adviser Josh skelter spoke today reached out and sorry today to both the Whelan and Griner families ahead of Secretary Blinken’s comments, and he’s going to be having conversations with them later today and tomorrow as we arrange for them to connect.”
Kirby said that he was not prepared to discuss too much more publicly, and was delicate as he fielded questions. “The details of it are best left between us and our Russian counterparts,” he said.
According to CNN, sources briefed on the matter say that a plan to trade Bout for Whelan and Griner received the green light from President Joe Biden after discussions that have gone on since earlier this year. Biden’s trade goes against the Department of Justice’s position, which usually opposes prisoner trades.
“We communicated a substantial offer that we believe could be successful based on a history of conversations with the Russians,” a senior administration official told CNN Wednesday. “We communicated that a number of weeks ago, in June.”
The source did not say what specifics were in the “substantial offer,” but said that 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.”
“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,” said the official.
“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.”
Whela has been held by Russia since 2018 for alleged espionage. Griner was jailed in February of this year for drug possession. The White House has urged for their release and is clearly now willing to do a prisoner exchange.
Thus far, Russia has played hardball with the US, with a spokesperson saying last week that the US must show respect for Russia’s laws.
“If a US citizen was taken in connection with the fact that she was smuggling drugs, and she does not deny this, then this should be commensurate with our Russian, local laws, and not with those adopted in San Francisco, New York and Washington,” said Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.
“You understand, if drugs are legalized in the United States, in a number of states, and this is done for a long time, and now the whole country will become drug-addicted, this does not mean that all other countries are following the same path,” Zakharova continued.
Cannabis in Russia is strictly illegal, with possession over 6 grams a criminal offense. Griner’s attorney’s said she had a prescription for the substance.
Griner pleaded guilty to the Russian drug charges in early July and said she packed the cartridges by accident. In court Griner said, “I’d like to plead guilty, your honor. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law.”
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