The United States has reportedly offered the Russian government a deal to free two imprisoned Americans, WNBA star Brittney Griner and corporate security executive Paul Whelan.
Though details of the offered deal remain scant at this juncture, a source close to the White House told the Associated Press that the United States offered the Kremlin convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for Griner and Whelan. In April, the U.S. successfully swapped convicted Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshen in exchange for imprisoned Marine veteran Trevor Reed.
“We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release. Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal, and I’ll use the conversation to follow up personally and, I hope, to move us toward a resolution,” Blinken said.
John Kirby, a White House national security spokesman, told reporters that President Joe Biden personally signed off on the deal to free Griner and Whelan. “The president and his team are willing to take extraordinary steps to bring them home,” said Kirby.
“We believe it’s important for the American people to know how hard President Biden is working to get Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan home,” he added.
The last known public correspondence between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov occurred on February 22 before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Blinken said his recent request to speak with Lavrov stemmed from both the desire to free the prisoners and to negotiate with Russia on “a U.N.-brokered deal to free multiple tons of Ukrainian grain from storage and warning him about the dangers of possible Russian attempts to annex portions of eastern and southern Ukraine,” according to the AP.
“There is utility to conveying clear, direct messages to the Russians on key priorities for us,” said Blinken. “What we’re seeing and hearing around the world is a desperate need for the foods, the desperate need for prices to decrease.”
Griner has been imprisoned in Russia since February after authorities arrested her for having a vape cartridge infused with CBD in her luggage. She has since pled guilty to possession of an illegal drug and has pleaded with the Biden administration to help with her release. In recent weeks, the Biden administration has taken considerable heat for allegedly not doing enough to negotiate her release.
“It kills me every time I write to her, and she asks, ‘Have you met with him yet?’ And I have to say no,” Griner’s wife, Cherelle, said in a recent appearance on CBS Mornings.
I’m sure she’s like, ‘I’m going to write him and ask now because my family has tried to no avail, so I’m going to do it myself,’” she continued. “Everything about this is a calculation for me because I have to walk the fine line of harm versus help when it comes to my wife right now.”
Brittney Griner’s wife Cherelle says it is “very disheartening” that she still has not heard back from the White House — after Brittney penned a handwritten letter to Pres. Biden from a Russian prison pleading for help. pic.twitter.com/MTyQqCJIBj
— CBS Mornings (@CBSMornings) July 5, 2022
Paul Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan, was sentenced by the Russian government to 16 years in prison for espionage, a charge he and his family have flatly denied.
Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, the reported prisoner set to be exchanged for the American pair, was sentenced to 25 years in 2012 for selling millions of dollars worth of illegal weapons. Russia, however, maintains that he was a victim of an aggressive U.S. sting operation while the judge who sentenced him told the Associated Press that he has served enough prison time.