The Biden administration has formally asked Moscow to make a deal to bring home WNBA basketball star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who are detained in Russia on dubious charges.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed Wednesday that U.S. officials offered Russia a “significant proposal” weeks ago relating to Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan. He declined to confirm reports that the Biden administration was proposing to swap the two Americans for notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is in prison in the United States.
A report by CNN said the administration decided after months of internal debate to offer to exchange Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan for Bout, who is serving a 25-year sentence in Illinois for selling weapons to Marxist rebels in Colombia and conspiring to kill U.S. nationals.
The report, which cited unidentified sources “briefed on the matter,” said President Biden has embraced the plan for a prisoner swap. The president’s support would override opposition from the Justice Department.
Washington is leading a global push to sanction and isolate the regime of President Vladimir Putin for Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine in February. The U.S. and Russia have had minimal diplomatic and economic contact in the five months since the invasion.
Openly pushing for such a trade may also represent a shift for the U.S. government, which has long resisted prisoner swaps because of concern that they could encourage hostage-taking and promote false equivalency between wrongfully detained Americans and foreign nationals justly convicted in U.S. courts.
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Despite such concerns, U.S. officials engaged in a swap in April when Marine veteran Trevor Reed was traded for imprisoned Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko. According to The Associated Press, the Reed-Yaroshenko trade appeared to open the door to more resolutions. The Biden administration has faced heavy political pressure to bring home Ms. Griner and other Americans designated as unjustly detained.
Mr. Blinken, who announced the offer during a State Department press conference, told reporters he “can’t and won’t get into any of the details of what we’ve proposed to the Russians over the course of so many weeks now.”
He said he intends to personally raise the Griner and Whelan cases with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
In a sharp reversal of policy, Mr. Blinken said he expects to speak with his Kremlin counterpart this week for the first time since the Ukraine war began.
“My hope would be that in speaking with Foreign Minister Lavrov, I can advance the efforts to bring them home,” Mr. Blinken said of Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan.
His comments marked the Biden administration’s first public revelation of concrete action in an attempt to secure the release of Ms. Griner. She was arrested on drug-related charges at a Moscow airport in February and testified Wednesday at her trial in a Russian court.
Russian authorities in 2020 sentenced Mr. Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan, to 16 years in prison on espionage charges. He and his family have vigorously asserted his innocence. The U.S. government has denounced the charges as false.
Mr. Blinken’s public announcement of a proposal to free Mr. Griner and Mr. Whelan now — when the Biden administration has otherwise shunned Russia — reflects mounting pressure on the White House to address their cases and its determination to get them out of Russian imprisonment.
The secretary of state told reporters that he requested a phone call with Mr. Lavrov and that the Biden administration would like a response from Moscow.
Russia has expressed interest for years in the release of Bout, a Russian arms dealer once labeled the “Merchant of Death.” He was sentenced in 2012 on charges that he schemed to sell millions of dollars in weapons. A lawyer for the jailed Russian declined to comment, citing the delicate nature of the talks.
“This is a sensitive moment in these negotiations, so out of respect for the process and the families involved, I have no further comment at this time,” attorney Steve Zissou said.
A Blinken-Lavrov call would be their first direct conversation since Feb. 15, about a week before Russia invaded Ukraine.
Mr. Blinken said he also would be speaking with Mr. Lavrov about the importance of Russia’s compliance with a U.N.-brokered deal to free multiple tons of Ukrainian grain from storage and warning him about the dangers of Russian attempts to annex portions of eastern and southern Ukraine.
Ms. Griner, 31, who played basketball in Russia during the WNBA’s offseason, acknowledged in court this month that she had vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage when she arrived in Moscow in February but contended she had no criminal intent and included the cartridges inadvertently in her luggage.
At her trial Wednesday, Ms. Griner said she did not know how the cannabis oil ended up in her bag. She said she had a doctor’s recommendation for the substance and had packed in haste. She said airport inspectors pulled her aside after finding the cartridges but a language interpreter translated only a fraction of what was said during her questioning. She said officials instructed her to sign documents without providing an explanation.
Ms. Griner faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of transporting drugs.
Mr. Whelan’s family said Wednesday that they had just been informed of the possible swap.
“Our family appreciates the Biden administration seeking Paul’s release using the resources it has available,” David Whelan, Mr. Whelan’s brother, said in a statement. “We hope the Russian government responds to the U.S. government and accepts this or some other concession that enables Paul to come home to his family.”
• Staff writer Susan Ferrechio contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.