Exclusive: Biden administration offers convicted Russian arms dealer in exchange for Griner and Whelan
Following months of internecine deliberations, after months of internal debate, the Biden administration has agreed to swap Viktor Bout, an convicted Russian arms trafficker who is serving an 25-year US prison sentence in an agreement to ensure freedom for two Americans who are held in detention by Russia, Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, according to sources who were briefed on the issue.
The sources said to CNN that the idea swapping Bout in exchange for Whelan and Griner has received the support of the president Joe Biden after being under discussions since earlier in the year. Biden’s backing for the swap is in contrast to opposition from officials from the Department of Justice, which generally is against prisoner trades.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that “so far, there is no agreement on this issue.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced Wednesday that the US made an “substantial proposal” to Moscow “weeks ago” for Whelan and Griner who are classified as detained in error.
At an announcement held at the State Department, Blinken said Biden was “directly involved” and signed up to the idea. However, Blinken did not specifically declare that Bout was involved in the deal, he did say that the 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 added “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.”
The most senior US diplomat has said he plans to discuss the issue in an upcoming call together with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov this week -his first interaction with his Russian counterpart since the conflict that erupted in Ukraine began, telling reportersthat “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,” the president said.
A top administration official has said Moscow isn’t responding in response to”substantial offers” made by the Russian government “substantial offer” first presented in June. He told 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 stated. “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.”