CNN Exclusive: Russian Officials Demand Convicted Killer Added to Griner/Whelan Prisoner Exchange

Earlier this month, the Russians relayed a request to the US through an unofficial channel used by an intelligence agency known as the FSB that they wanted to release Vadim Krasikov, sources said. Krasikov was convicted in December of killing former Chechen militant Zelimkhan “Tornike” Khangoshvili in Berlin’s Kleiner Tiergarten district in 2019 and sentenced to life in prison.

Sources told CNN that the request was considered problematic for several reasons, including Krasikov’s continued detention in Germany. Thus, and because the request was not communicated officially, but rather via the FSB backchannel, the US government did not see it as a legitimate response to the US proposal, which was first revealed by CNN on Wednesday.

But emphasizing how determined the Biden administration is to bring Griner and Whelan back to the US, US officials asked the Germans if they might want to include Krasikov in the deal, a senior German government source told CNN. A US official described the outreach as a test of Krasikov’s status.

Talk never reached the highest levels of the German government, and including Krasikov in a potential deal was not seriously considered, according to a German source. But previously unreported discussions show that Russian officials have at least some measure of acceptance of the US proposal.

Although the request was not made through official channels, the FSB has extensive powers and is a major part of the Russian security apparatus. Russian President Vladimir Putin is known to have worked for his powerful predecessor, the KGB.

Adrienne Watson, spokeswoman for the National Security Council, told CNN after the story was published that “holding two illegally detained Americans hostage to free a Russian killer in the custody of a third country is not a serious counteroffer.” This is a bad suggestion.” faith in trying to avoid a deal on the table that Russia should go for.”

National Security Council strategic communications coordinator John Kirby echoed Watson on Friday, calling Russia’s request a “bad faith attempt to evade a very serious offer” during an interview with CNN’s Jim Sciutto on Erin Burnett Off the Front. He added: “We urge Russia to take this proposal seriously.”

Asked by Shutto if this development in the talks signaled that the talks had stalled, Kirby said he would not describe the current situation in that way.

“They just didn’t want to honestly consider or even seriously consider the proposal that we put forward. I wouldn’t say it’s stalled… We really want Britney and Paul to go home to their families where they belong. “They are illegally detained there. And we’re just going to keep doing that,” Kirby said.

Asked for comment, a State Department spokesman told CNN that “in order to maintain the best chance for a successful outcome, we are not going to publicly comment on any speculation.” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said on Wednesday that the US placed “a substantial proposal on the table a few weeks ago” to facilitate the release of Griner and Whelan. He added that “our governments have repeatedly and directly communicated this proposal.”

On Friday, Blinken spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about the proposed exchange. They had “frank and direct conversation” Blinken said.

“I urged the Kremlin to accept our substantial offer to release Paul Whelan and Britney Griner,” Blinken added.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Lavrov “strongly suggested” to Blinken that the US return to a regime of “quiet diplomacy” regarding a possible exchange of prisoners “without speculative information stuffing.”

It is not clear if Krasikov was discussed during the telephone conversation.

Blinken says he had a 'frank' discussion with Russia's foreign minister for the first time since the start of the war in Ukraine

Several sources told CNN that even if it wasn’t Krasikov, the Russians would likely demand the release of the two prisoners in exchange for Griner and Whelan. Russian government officials have publicly said in recent weeks that they want to secure the release of Bout and Roman Seleznev, convicted hackers who are currently serving 27 years in the US.

“I am not sure that any additional activity, especially in the public sphere, will help to find a correct, balanced compromise and find a basis for easing the lot of many of our compatriots, such as Viktor Bout, who has health problems, [or] like Seleznev and many others,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters earlier this month.

But US officials believe that Russia is simply trying to buy time by making frivolous offers until Griner’s trial is over.

Griner is facing trial for allegedly entering Russia in February with cannabis oil in her luggage, which she says she used for pain relief and which she inadvertently packed into her bags. In 2020, Whelan was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison. The State Department declared them both unlawfully detained.

Jennifer Hansler and CNN’s Sam Fossum contributed to the story.