Politics: U.S. seeking to swap Russian arms dealer for Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan

Kremlin poker-faced on US swap offer to free Griner, Whelan

  Kremlin poker-faced on US swap offer to free Griner, Whelan MOSCOW (AP) — The Kremlin warned Thursday that a possible prisoner swap with the United States involving American basketball star Brittney Griner needs to be negotiated quietly without fanfare. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that Washington had offered Russia a deal that would bring home Griner and another jailed American, Paul Whelan. A person familiar with the matter said the U.S. government proposed trading convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Whelan and Griner.

The U.S. government has proposed to Russia that it release detained Americans Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan in exchange for imprisoned Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, two sources familiar with the matter confirmed to NBC News.

Griner, a WNBA star and Olympic gold medalist, has been held in Russia since February, and Whelan, a corporate executive, has been detained in the country since 2018.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that the Biden administration had made a “substantial” offer to Russia to facilitate the release of Griner and Whelan, but he did not disclose further details about the proposal.

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CNN reported earlier Wednesday that the Biden administration offered to swap Bout for Griner and Whelan.

Blinken laid out his plans to speak with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the coming days at a news briefing Wednesday.

“We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release,” Blinken said.

Brittney Griner (Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP) © Alexander Zemlianichenko Brittney Griner (Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP)

“Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal, and I’ll use the conversation to follow up personally and, I hope, move us toward a resolution," he added.

Blinken said it would be the first time he has spoken with his Russian counterpart since the war in Ukraine erupted in February.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said at a news briefing on Thursday that "there are no agreements in this area yet."

Brittney Griner testifies in Russian court as US works to secure her release

  Brittney Griner testifies in Russian court as US works to secure her release Brittney Griner testified on Wednesday in a Russian court after the WNBA star's legal team requested more time for her to prepare. Griner, a 31-year-old Houston native who plays professional basketball for the Phoenix Mercury, was detained on Feb. 17 at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Khimki as she returned to Russia to play during the WNBA's offseason after she was accused of having vape cartridges containing hashish oil, which is illegal in the country. If convicted, she faces up to 10 years in prison and also has a right to an appeal.

The Biden administration faces growing calls to do more to secure the release of the two Americans, who U.S. officials say have been wrongfully detained.

Griner, 31, was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport after Russian authorities said she was carrying vape canisters with cannabis oil, which is prohibited in Russia, in her luggage. She pleaded guilty this month.

Video: Attorney for Russian arms dealer on possible swap for Griner (MSNBC)

Griner testified in a Russian court Wednesday that she did not intend to break the law.

Whelan was convicted of espionage in a Russian court about two years ago. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

A senior administration official said a high-level U.S. official reached out to the families of Whelan and Griner ahead of Blinken’s remarks Wednesday. The high-level official will have conversations with the families on Wednesday and Thursday, the source said.

Why White House went public with Griner, Whelan offer as Russia says no deal yet

  Why White House went public with Griner, Whelan offer as Russia says no deal yet The Biden administration's unusual decision to publicize its offer to Russia to free Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan was made in part to reassure Americans rather than entice the Russians, White House aides said Thursday. Your browser does not support this video White House spokesman John Kirby said on "Good Morning America" that the deal the U.S. proposed for Griner and Whelan had been "set forth many weeks ago" and that the administration decided to publicize it to show Americans what President Joe Biden was doing to try to free them amid months-long scrutiny. "This isn't something that just happened ...

Asked about the timing of Blinken’s announcement at a White House briefing later Wednesday, John Kirby, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, said, “We think making it clear that there is an actual proposal made, that there is something tangible on the table, is important context for the world to know about the United States’ seriousness with which we will try to get our citizens back home.”

Bout, dubbed “the Merchant of Death” because he was said to be one of the world’s largest illicit arms dealers, is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S. after being convicted in 2011 of selling arms to Colombian rebels.

Bout was convicted of selling weapons to rebels with the understanding they would be used to kill Americans, U.S. officials have said.

The U.S. decision to offer a trade of Bout was made after months of discussions between President Joe Biden and his national security team, and it was made over objections from the Justice Department, according to people familiar with the talks.

The exchange, if it happens, would be the second this year with Russia.

Trump blasts White House's rumored offer to trade 'Merchant of Death' for Brittney Griner

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In April, a former U.S. Marine from Texas, Trevor Reed, was freed from a Russian prison in exchange for the release of Russian drug trafficker Konstantin Yaroshenko.

On Tuesday, NBC News published and aired an interview with Reed in which he said the White House was “not doing enough” to secure the release of Griner and Whelan.

Paul Whelan (Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP file) © Alexander Zemlianichenko Paul Whelan (Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP file)

Reed said on CNN Wednesday that he thinks Griner and Whelan “have a really good chance” of being released.

“I think that, you know, if the Russians are not stupid then they’ll take that offer,” Reed told CNN’s Jake Tapper.

Adrienne Watson, a White House spokesperson, said in a statement this week that Biden "has been clear about the need to see every American who is wrongfully detained or held hostage abroad released, including Brittney Griner.”

“Months ago, he directed his national security team to pursue every avenue to bring Brittney home safely to her family, friends, and loved ones," Watson added. "The U.S. government continues to work aggressively, pursuing every avenue, to make that happen.”

Dawn Staley Comments on Brittney Griner’s Sentencing .
The South Carolina and Team USA basketball coach discussed the sentencing of Griner and what she hopes happens next. View the original article to see embedded media. WNBA star Brittney Griner was sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony and fined by a Russian court on Thursday on charges of smuggling drugs with criminal intent. The Mercury star was arrested at an airport near Moscow in February and accused of having hashish oil in her luggage. After her sentencing, South Carolina and USA Basketball coach Dawn Staley discussed Griner’s verdict and what should happen next.

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