With basketball superstar Brittney Griner having faced yet another day in Russian court, pressure has mounted in Washington to sway President Joe Biden’s administration to offer the release of convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for her freedom and that of another detained U.S. citizen, suspected spy Paul Whelan.
CNN reported Wednesday that Biden was now backing such an exchange, citing people briefed on the matter. Secretary Antony Blinken confirmed shortly after that Washington had offered Moscow a “substantial proposal” for Whelan and Griner’s freedom weeks ago with Biden’s approval.
Multiple sources, including those familiar with such cases as well as those directly tied to the fates of these these individuals, explained to Newsweek why a trade involving the trio should be made.
“The obvious answer is a Whelan/Griner for Bout trade,” a source who has worked successfully on numerous foreign detention cases of U.S. citizens and wished to remain anonymous told Newsweek.
Though the swap may seem controversial on its face, the source said there was support from officers of the court involved in the case. Chief among them is Shira A. Scheindlin, the federal judge who in 2012 sentenced Bout to 25 years, as the result of a U.S. sting operation that tricked him into selling anti-aircraft missiles to individuals paid by the Drug Enforcement Administration to pose as members of an outlawed Colombian militant group in 2008.
“There is built-in political cover in that Bout’s sentencing judge believes he has done enough time,” the source said. “We’d be getting 13 years off Paul Whelan’s sentence, plus the years we get off Brittney’s, and the Russians would get about six off Bout’s. It’s time to clear the decks and bring our people home.”
Scheindlin, for her part, said she’d “absolutely” back the deal, telling Newsweek that Bout had “served a long time already,” especially given the fact that the sentence she gave him was the mandatory minimum for the charges he faced, and that she “never thought it was a fair sentence” to begin with.
Whelan, a former police officer and member of the U.S. Marine Corps, was arrested in Russia in 2018 on charges of espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison. Griner, who counts two Olympic gold medals and a WNBA championship among her accolades, was arrested in February for carrying outlawed hashish in vape cartridges as she entered the country to play in the Russian Women’s Basketball Premier League.
The U.S. considers both individuals to have been wrongfully detained, just as Russia has described Bout’s imprisonment as politically motivated. Both sides deny the allegations lodged by the other, and the situation has been at an impasse.
Among others calling for the Biden administration to break the stalemate is another individual whom the White House fought to bring back from Russia and ultimately succeeded in April as part of a prisoner exchange.
Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine arrested in 2019 over the alleged assault of a Russian police officer, told Newsweek that he felt “the United States should make any type of agreement to get Paul and Brittney out.”
“And if that includes an exchange, I think they should absolutely do that, even if that means trading Viktor Bout,” Reed added. “No data supports the idea that prisoner trades cause more hostage taking.”
As concerns mount over Griner and Whelan’s treatment, Reed also spoke to his own experience.
“I wouldn’t let myself hope in prison,” Reed said. “The longer that I was in there, the more dedicated I was to not allow them to break me. The Russian government places no value on human life, so yes, I worry about the well-being of Paul, Brittney, and so many others around the world.”
Reed’s release came in exchange for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot who was allegedly lured to Liberia by undercover agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration with promises of making money on a drug-running operation, and then arrested on conspiracy charges in 2010 before being transferred to the U.S. and sentenced to 20 years in prison the following year.
The tactics employed by the DEA in Yaroshenko’s case have been met with controversy, as has the plot to capture Bout, one of several men on whom the 2005 film Lord of War starring Nicholas Cage was loosely based.
Bout’s true legacy is complicated, however, and mired in his murky business dealings across the globe, from post-Soviet Eastern Europe to Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan. Using his air freighter carrier business, Bout has been accused by U.S. officials of shipping arms to war zones around the world.
But it was not until the DEA’s undercover informants posing as Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) offered him a deal to sell weapons that would allegedly be used to directly harm U.S. nationals that authorities cracked down on him, having him arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then brought stateside.
Bout’s lawyer in the U.S., Steve Zissou, warned that such U.S. tactics put the liberty and well-being of U.S. citizens abroad at risk.
“We should be concerned about the blowback that these kinds of operations generate and the risk to U.S. citizens,” Zissou told Newsweek. “The problem is that many federal prosecutors only consider whether they can do something, not whether they should do something. By ‘should’ I mean they give no thought to how the targeting of another country’s citizens might result in unintended consequences.”
In Bout’s case, Zissou too recalled how Scheindlin “found that he had been retired for many years before the government created a ‘sting’ operation just so he could be charged in a U.S. courtroom.”
“And so this little federal district in New York, one of 94 in the United States, decided to go forward with the case without regard to the risk that it might mean to American citizens,” Zissou said. “And, of course, the Department of Justice reflexively opposes any prisoner exchanges whatsoever, even in a case such as Viktor Bout’s where he has just 5 or so years left of his sentence.”
He called the approach “very dangerous,” and said Bout’s detainment began a vicious cycle between Washington and Moscow.
“People in the U.S. routinely blame Russia for so-called hostage-taking,” he said, “but the targeting of each other’s citizens started with the U.S. targeting Viktor Bout.”
This threat has prompted both the U.S. and Russia to issue advisories to their respective citizen against traveling to the other country. The State Department took this cautioning a step further earlier this month when it branded Russia as one of six countries with a new “D” indicator, denoting “the risk of wrongful detention of U.S. nationals.”
The other five to receive the mark were China, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea and Venezuela.
If there were a chance to help break the cycle by releasing Bout in exchange for Griner and Whelan, Zissou said he would support that deal.
“Viktor has been in jail for almost 15 years, which is more than the jail time that Trevor Reed, Paul Whelan and Ms. Griner have spent combined,” Zissou said. “So, of course, I would support any exchange that got Mr. Bout home to his wife and daughter.”
But he noted it would not be an easy proposition, especially given Russia’s own perception of Whelan.
“Do I think it would be difficult for the Russian government to exchange Viktor for Paul Whelan? Yes,” Zissou said. “This is because, in Russia, Whelan is regarded as a notorious spy. Just as in the U.S., Viktor is said to be a ‘notorious arms dealer.'”
Whelan, who also holds Canadian, Irish and U.K. citizenships, has denied being a spy and pled not guilty to the charges against him. Griner, on the other hand, submitted a guilty plea, though her defense has argued that she did not bring the illicit substances into Russia with criminal intent.
A White House spokesperson told Newsweek that bringing both individuals home was a top priority for Biden and reiterated Blinken’s remarks Wednesday.
“President Biden directed his national security team to pursue every avenue to bring Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan home safely to their families, friends, and loved ones,” the spokesperson said. “The U.S. government continues to work aggressively, pursuing every avenue, to make that happen and as part of those efforts we made a substantial proposal to bring Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan home. However, won’t be going into details of the proposal.”
White House National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby also weighed in Wednesday when asked about the risk of making such an offer public. He called negotiating with a foreign government for a U.S. citizen’s release “delicate work.”
And while he asserted that the Biden administration would not be “negotiating in public,” he said that U.S. officials felt that, given Griner’s courtroom appearance on Wednesday, “it was an appropriate time to talk about these efforts.”
Reached for comment, the State Department earlier referred Newsweek to spokesperson Ned Price’s comments during a daily press briefing Tuesday.
“I would say that we have made the case of Brittney Griner, we have made the case of Paul Whelan, an absolute priority,” Price said, “and we are working actively, quietly behind the scenes to do everything we can to see that their wrongful detentions come to an end as quickly as possible.”
And though he declined to go into details regarding these quiet discussions, he confirmed that, “of course, there has to be and there is engagement with Russian authorities on both of these cases, just as we are discussing with relevant authorities around the world the cases of Americans who are wrongfully detained and who have been separated from their families for far too long.”
“As we do that, we are working closely with the families,” he added. “We are meeting with them. We are having conversations with them. Our consular officers around the world are providing all possible support to Americans who are wrongfully detained.”
Russian officials have also continually said they were working to free Russian citizens detained in the U.S., including Bout and Roman Seleznev, who was arrested in the Maldives in 2014 and later sent to the U.S. to be sentenced to 27 years in prison over an alleged credit card hacking scheme.
Last month, Russian ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov said on Russia’s Channel One that “it is important to speak publicly and demand the release of Viktor Bout and Roman Seleznev,” especially as “both of them suffer from serious chronic conditions, but all their pleas and requests to embassies for qualified medical assistance are being ignored.”
“Freeing Russians from U.S. prison cells is a key task for our diplomats,” Antonov said at the time. “We will keep working to make sure that not a single Russian citizen remains in U.S. jails.”
The comments came just one day after U.S. ambassador to Russia John Sullivan told the state-run TASS Russian News Agency that an exchange involving Bout was brought up by Russian officials during discussions, though he declined to go into details.
Family members of both Griner and Whelan have expressed grievances about a perceived lack of effort on the part of the U.S. government in bringing their loved ones home. The White House sought to smooth these tensions with calls to Griner’s wife, Cherelle, and Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth, earlier this month.
And hope remained that an arrangement could ultimately be worked out, even as tensions continued to soar between Washington and Moscow over the ongoing war in Ukraine.
David Whelan, twin brother of Paul Whelan, told Newsweek that his family was aware of a number of convicted Russians who have been raised as potential candidates for a swap, including Bout and Seleznev, as well as Yaroshenko, prior to his release in exchange for Reed.
“Since all of these trades are asymmetrical – not like-for-like, as with the 2010 spy exchanges, it is hard to know what the U.S. would be willing to go through with,” David Whelan said. “The US government is aware that our family is open to them using whatever means they deem sufficient to secure Paul’s release.”
And this included releasing Bout.
“President Biden makes hard decisions when he frees wrongfully detained Americans,” David Whelan said. “I would support any decision he made to get Paul home to our parents.”
Newsweek has contacted representatives of Griner and the Russian embassy in Washington, D.C. for comment.
This article has been updated to include reporting from CNN and comments from White House spokespersons.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism