President Joe Biden is reportedly offering to release the convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for the release of U.S. Marine veteran Paul Whelan and WNBA basketball player Brittney Griner, who are both being held in Russia. The White House confirmed that a “substantial offer” was made in regards to the release of Whelan and Griner.
The National Security Council’s Strategic Communications Coordinator John Kirby said during a White House press conference on Wednesday, “Months ago, President Biden directed his national security team to pursue every avenue to bring Brittney home safely to her family, her loved ones, her teammates. The U.S. government continues to work aggressively pursuing every avenue to make that happen. Now, as part of those efforts, we made a substantial offer to secure the release of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner, and to bring them home.”
Kirby said that the offer was made “weeks ago” but declined to provide additional details.
Sources briefed on the potential exchange told CNN that Biden has backed a plan to release Viktor Bout for the return of Whelan and Griner. The Russian government reportedly first proposed releasing Griner in exchange for Bout in May.
Bout served in the Soviet Armed forces and, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, had worked as an international weapons trafficker throughout the 1990s and 2000s. According to the DOJ, between November 2007 and March 2008, Bout agreed to sell weapons to the Columbian militant group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) with the knowledge they would be used to target Americans in Columbia. According to the DOJ, the weapons Bout helped sell included 800 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), 30,000 AK-47 firearms, 10 million rounds of ammunition, five tons of C-4 plastic explosives, “ultralight” airplanes outfitted with grenade launchers, and unmanned aerial vehicles.
Western media nicknamed Bout the “Merchant of Death.”
Bout was convicted in 2011 of conspiring to kill U.S. nationals, conspiring to kill U.S. officers and employees, conspiring to acquire and export anti-aircraft missiles and conspiring to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization. The U.S. had designated FARC a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) until November of last year, when President Joe Biden’s administration removed the designation. He is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence.
Whelan was detained in Russia since December of 2018 and was convicted and sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in a Russian prison on espionage charges. Whelan has maintained his innocence throughout his captivity in Russia.
Griner has been held in Russian custody since February on charges of illegal drug possession after a cartridge containing hashish oil was found in her luggage. She was traveling to Russia at the time to play in a Russian basketball league during the WNBA offseason. Earlier this month, Griner pleaded guilty to the drug charge but said she did not intentionally bring the hashish oil into Russia.
The U.S. government considers both Whelan and Griner to be wrongfully detained.
In April, Russia released Trevor Reed, another Marine veteran detained in Russia — in exchange for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a former Russian pilot who had been convicted in a U.S. federal court on charges of attempting to smuggle drugs into the U.S. Yaroshenko had been sentenced in 2011 and was serving out a 20-year prison term at the time of his release.
Reed had been held in Russian custody since August of 2019 on charges of assaulting Russian police officers. Reed’s case was reportedly marred with inconsistent testimony. Police claimed Reed assaulted the officers after they placed him in a police vehicle, hitting one officer and pulling on the wheel of the car to cause it to swerve. Reed’s defense team was reportedly never given any copy of the video from inside the police vehicle, purporting to show Reed’s actions. Video shown in court did not appear to establish that Reed took any actions that caused the police vehicle to swerve.