WASHINGTON. Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken said Wednesday that the United States “submitted a substantial offer a few weeks ago” in negotiations with Russia to secure the release of basketball star Britney Greener and another American detainee. Paul Whelan.
A source briefed on the talks said that in June, the United States offered to trade imprisoned Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, for Miss. Griner and Mr. Whelan, and that President Biden, who was under increasing political pressure to free Americans, supported the proposal.
Speaking to reporters at a press conference in Washington, M. Blinken said that the United States and Russia “repeatedly and directly discussed this proposal” and that he expects to soon raise it directly with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
mr. Blinken declined to provide further details about the offer or describe any Russian response, saying he did not want to jeopardize delicate talks with Moscow. mr. Blinken last spoke to Mr. Lavrov, Russia’s top diplomat, at a January meeting in Geneva, weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. September 24 led to an almost complete closure of American diplomacy with Russia.
mr. Blinken refused to confirm CNN report what mr. Biden agreed to trade Mr. Bout, whose release the Kremlin has been demanding for years, for Mr. Griner and Mr. Whelan. Known as the “Merchant of Death”, Mr. Booth is serving a 25-year term in federal prison for conspiring to sell weapons to people who said they planned to kill Americans.
In response to a question last week about a possible exchange of Mr. Booth, William J. Burns, director of the CIA, speaking at the Aspen Security Forum, didn’t sound enthusiastic about calling Mr. Booth a “creep.”
mr. Bout, 55, is a former Soviet military man who made his fortune trading arms around the world before being caught in a federal sting operation. Russian officials have been pushing his case for years, and in recent weeks the Russian media have directly linked his case to Ms. B. Griner.
Russia has a hero Ms. Griner, 31, since mid-February, when she was arrested at a Moscow airport on charges of hash oil found in her luggage. She pleaded guilty to the drug charges against her and said in a court in the Moscow region on Wednesday that she had accidentally packaged a small amount of a cannabis-related substance that she uses at the direction of her doctor for pain relief. Russia has notoriously strict drug laws. At court on Wednesday she testified about her ordeal, navigating an unfamiliar legal system.
mr. Whelan, 52, a former head of the Marine Corps and a security company, was detained in a Moscow hotel in 2019 on charges of espionage. The State Department classified both Mr. Whelan and Ms. Griner as “wrongfully detained” and transferred their cases to a special department for hostage cases.
mr. Whelan’s brother David said in a statement that the family had just learned of the US offer.
“Our family is grateful to the Biden administration for seeking Paul’s release with the resources it has,” he said. “We hope that the Russian government will respond to the US government and accept this or any other concession that will allow Paul to return home to his family.”
Mrs. Griner’s Russian defense said they learned about the American proposal from the news and did not participate in the discussions. According to lawyers, from a legal point of view, the exchange of prisoners is possible only after a verdict is passed by the court.
“In any case, we would be very happy if Britney can return home, and we hope that this will happen soon,” said one of her lawyers, Maria Blagovolina.
Declining to discuss details, Blinken said the US government is trying to balance the imperatives of releasing illegally detained prisoners around the world while working to “strengthen the global norm against these arbitrary detentions, against what is truly a horrendous practice.”
Critics say the prisoner exchange encourages foreign governments and terrorist groups to arrest or kidnap Americans. But in April, the United States struck a deal with Moscow, sending back a convicted Russian drug dealer in exchange for Trevor Reid, a former US Marine who was arrested in Moscow in 2019 on charges of assaulting a police officer. Biden administration officials have suggested that the trade is an exceptional case that Mr. Trump has made urgent. Reed’s poor health.