In February 2022, WNBA star and Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner was detained at a Moscow airport. She was arrested when authorities found CBD cartridges in her luggage, which Griner stated were packed by accident. She has pled guilty to the charges and faces up to 10 years in prison.
Per USA Today, on Thursday, July 28, the United States government made public that it was negotiating a deal with the Kremlin for the return of Griner and Paul Whelan, another American and former Marine who has been wrongfully imprisoned in Russia since 2018.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stated that the United States had made a “significant offer” to Russia weeks ago for their release. This is the first acknowledgment of government activity in an attempt to bring Griner home. The Biden administration has been criticized for what has been perceived as a lack of action in this widely publicized situation.
Shortly before Blinken’s announcement, CNN revealed that the United States was offering Viktor Bout to Russia in a swap deal for Griner and Whelan. Per ESPN, Bout was once labeled the “Merchant of Death.” In 2012, he was sentenced to 25 years in an American prison for a plan to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons illegally. Apparently, Moscow has wanted Bout to be returned to Russia for some time. The trade has been called “misguided,” with one of the critics being Rob Zachariasiewicz, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent who was part of the operations that resulted in Bout’s 2008 arrest in Thailand.
When the plans for the swap were made public, the Kremlin was very clear that it wanted negotiations to take place discreetly and “without fanfare.” Russian government spokesperson Dmitry Peskov noted that such exchanges were usually discussed “behind the scenes,” with the public learning about such activity after finalizing agreements. He confirmed that the offer was not final and did not provide any additional information.
However, Blinken did confirm that he would be speaking with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss the proposed exchange. This will mark the first phone call between the two since Russia invaded Ukraine.