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Biden Admin Offers Russia ‘Substantial Proposal’ in Exchange for Griner, Whelan

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Brittney Griner is escorted to a courtroom for a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Monday, July 25, 2022. | Image by Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool Photo

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken revealed Wednesday that the Biden administration had offered a “substantial proposal” for the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and that of another American detained in Russia, Paul Whelan.

Blinken did not offer details on the proposed deal. However, CNN, citing an unnamed senior administration official, reported Wednesday that the proposed deal involves exchanging Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer once dubbed the “Merchant of Death,” for Griner and Whelan.

Bout was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012 on charges that he schemed to sell millions of dollars in weapons illegally.

Russian media previously hinted that such an exchange may be in the works, but U.S. authorities had not offered official comment on the matter.

The unnamed source told CNN that the rumored exchange has the backing of President Joe Biden.

“In the coming days, I expect to speak with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov for the first time since the war began. I plan to raise an issue that’s a top priority for us. The release of Americans Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner, who’ve been wrongfully detained and must be allowed to come home,” Blinken said Wednesday.

“We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release. Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal. And I’ll use the conversation to follow up personally and I hope move toward a resolution,” Blinken added.

Should a conversation occur between Blinken and Lavrov, it would be the first communication between the two since February 15, about a week before Russia invaded Ukraine.

The secretary of state also said he wants to speak to Lavrov about the importance of Russia complying with an UN-brokered deal to release multiple tons of Ukrainian grain from storage and to warn him about repercussions if Russia attempts to annex portions of eastern and southern Ukraine.

Blinken’s statement marks the first time a U.S. government official has publicly revealed any concrete action it has taken to secure the release of Griner, who has been in Russian custody for the past five months.

Griner pleaded guilty earlier this month to possessing vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage when she arrived at a Moscow airport. She has testified that she had no criminal intent and had packed the cartridges inadvertently.

Griner also testified this week that she had a doctor’s recommendation for cannabis and that after inspectors found the cartridges, a language interpreter translated only a fraction of what was said during her questioning. She claimed officials instructed her to sign documents without an explanation.

Griner faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan, was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in a Russian prison on espionage charges. He and his family have vigorously asserted that the charges are fabricated.

Both Griner and Whelan are considered wrongfully detained by the U.S. State Department.

The U.S. government has historically resisted prisoner swaps out of concern that they may incentivize countries to detain Americans so they can be used as bargaining chips.

However, the idea of prisoner swaps gained new momentum earlier this year after the successful release of Trevor Reed, a former Marine who was held captive in Russia for more than two years. Reed was traded for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot who was serving a 20-year federal prison sentence for a cocaine smuggling conspiracy.

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