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Former Marine, Russian pilot freed in U.S.-Russia prisoner swap

Former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed during a 2020 court hearing in Moscow. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)
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The United States and Russia conducted a prisoner exchange Wednesday, officials said, releasing a former U.S. Marine and a Russian pilot in a show of continued bilateral engagement despite acute tensions over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Biden administration said the arrangement that freed American Trevor Reed required President Biden to make the unpalatable decision to repatriate Konstantin Yaroshenko, imprisoned in the United States on drug smuggling charges. But it was one Biden was willing to make as Reed’s health appeared to deteriorate in Russian detention, U.S. officials said.

“Today, we welcome home Trevor Reed and celebrate his return to the family that missed him dearly,” Biden said in a statement. “The negotiations that allowed us to bring Trevor home required difficult decisions that I do not take lightly.”

U.S. and Russian officials said the exchange was the culmination of months of negotiations that the Biden administration said was unrelated to the Kremlin’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, which has prompted the United States and its allies to impose waves of punishing sanctions on Russia and sent Western tensions with Moscow to their highest levels since the Cold War.

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The swap, which occurred in Turkey, suggests the United States and Russia can still do business even as Washington seeks to isolate Moscow economically and politically, and President Vladimir Putin threatens severe action against those backing Ukraine’s attempt to repel the Russian assault.

Just two days earlier, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin declared following a visit to Kyiv that the Biden administration hoped to sufficiently weaken Russia so that it would be unable to threaten its neighbors, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke of a “real” danger of World War III.

The two countries have also expelled diplomats in a series of tit-for-tat moves. While Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Lavrov halted talks over Ukraine after the invasion began, the Biden administration has said it plans to maintain ties and cooperate where necessary, as the two countries have done in efforts to resurrect the Iran nuclear deal. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow remains open, as does the Russian Embassy in Washington.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki called Reed’s release, which occurred in the early hours of Monday in Washington, “a huge moment.” Reed’s family thanked Biden for actions that “may have saved Trevor’s life.”

“Today, our prayers have been answered and Trevor is safely on his way back to the United States,” the family said in a statement.

Russian state television broadcast images of Reed boarding an aircraft at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport. Carrying a black duffel bag, he had dark rings under his eyes and was held by armed men wearing camouflage.

U.S. officials said the negotiations that resulted in the exchange did not address Ukraine.

“This is a discrete issue on which we were able to make an arrangement with the Russians,” a senior U.S. official said. “It represents no change, zero, to our approach to the appalling violence in Ukraine.”

The arrangement leaves at least two well-known Americans in Russian custody: Paul Whelan, another former Marine, who was arrested in 2018 on espionage charges and sentenced to 16 years in prison; and Brittney Griner, a professional basketball player who was detained upon arrival at a Moscow-area airport in February for allegedly carrying hashish oil.

U.S. officials, who spoke to reporters Wednesday morning on the condition of anonymity under Biden administration rules, said Reed was in good spirits. It was not immediately clear what role the Turkish government may have had in the exchange other than allowing it to occur on its soil.

Soon after the conflict erupted in Ukraine, Reed’s family and U.S. officials renewed calls for his release as his parents said his health was worsening. They said last month their son told them he was “coughing up blood multiple times a day, running a fever, and still experiencing pain in his lung.”

The push for freeing Reed received bipartisan support and U.S. lawmakers accused Putin of using him as a political bargaining chip.

Reed’s detention stemmed from a drunken night in Russia that he said he did not remember, leading to a nine-year prison sentence in 2020 for endangering the “life and health” of Russian police officers. Reed, who had been visiting his girlfriend in Moscow, denied any wrongdoing and has described his case as “clearly political.”

U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan has described the evidence used to convict Reed as “ridiculous.”

Family of Trevor Reed, Marine Corps veteran jailed in Russia, pushes for release as health declines

The prisoner on the other end of the swap, 53-year-old former pilot Yaroshenko, was serving a 20-year sentence at the Danbury, Conn., federal prison for conspiracy to bring drugs into the United States. His attorneys previously argued he had been entrapped by the Drug Enforcement Administration after he was picked up by authorities in Liberia and turned over to DEA officials. A Department of Justice spokesperson declined to comment on his release.

In 2010, Yaroshenko met with two men about transporting large shipments of cocaine from South America into Liberia and on to other destinations, including the United States, according to court documents. The two men were confidential sources for a long-running undercover DEA operation.

Speaking after the swap, U.S. officials highlighted that Yaroshenko had already served most of his sentence.

Yaroshenko’s wife, Viktoria, told the Russian newspaper Izvestia that she was informed about the plan for a swap ahead of Orthodox Easter last weekend. “They told me that he was coming today,” she said. “I want to cry. I will be going to the airport.”

His lawyer, Alexei Tarasov, told Russian outlets that arrangements for the trade were finalized last week. There was no confidence that it would take place until the last moment, the lawyer was quoted as saying.

FAQ: Is a Russia-U.S. prisoner swap possible?

U.S. officials said Reed’s health was a driving element in the decision to accelerate months-long negotiations over his case. Reed went on two hunger strikes while in prison to protest the conditions in the facilities where he was held and the way the prison administration and guards treated him.

In late March, Reed stopped accepting food to demand medical help, which his family said he was being denied. His parents said their son had been exposed to an inmate with active tuberculosis in December. Despite a rapid deterioration in his health, he had not been tested for the illness nor given proper medication aside from “vitamins,” the family said. The Russian prison service said Reed’s condition was “satisfactory.”

Reed also went on hunger strike for almost a week in November 2021 to protest his incarceration and violations of his rights.

His health “contributed to really ratcheting up the conversations on this issue … getting to a point where we were able to turn to some of the logistics of simply getting it done,” another U.S. official said.

Bill Richardson, a retired lawmaker and diplomat who took part in nongovernmental efforts to secure Reed’s release, said he hoped the exchange would pave the way for others.

“My private humanitarian efforts helped pave the way, but credit should where it deserves to go and that is both countries can, despite our enormous differences, achieve a humanitarian breakthrough,” he said.

Randall Jackson, a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York who prosecuted Yaroshenko more than a decade ago, said the Russian government seemed to have been seeking the prisoner’s release for some time.

Jackson said he did not have a personal view about whether the exchange was appropriate but said he worried about the precedent it could set.

“As a former prosecutor, I do have some general wariness about the dangers of the international community believing that any American that gets held abroad can be a poker chip for someone who may be a very serious violator of American laws,” he said.

The swap was a bittersweet moment for the relatives of Whelan. In a statement, Whelan’s twin brother said his family was heartened by Reed’s release but hoped for similar news.

“Paul has already spent three and a quarter years as a Russian hostage,” David Whelan wrote. “Is President Biden’s failure to bring Paul home an admission that some cases are too hard to solve?”

Michael Birnbaum in Riga, Latvia, and Timothy Bella, John Hudson, Shane Harris, Matt Zapotosky and Amar Nadhir in Washington contributed to this report.