RIGA, Latvia — Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that the United States has made a “substantial proposal” to Russia to secure the release of two jailed Americans: WNBA star Brittney Griner and security consultant Paul Whelan.
She faces 10 years in prison in a case that has further strained U.S.-Russian relations, already badly damaged by the war in Ukraine. Blinken said he would speak to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, a significant break from his past strategy of avoiding contact with senior Russian officials and seeking maximum isolation of Moscow.
The comments from Blinken will intensify speculation about a possible prisoner swap involving Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed the “Merchant of Death,” who is serving a 25-year sentence in Illinois for conspiring to kill U.S. nationals and selling weapons to terrorists. The Kremlin has been pushing for his release since his arrest in Thailand in 2008, claiming he was wrongfully convicted in a New York court in 2011.
Blinken would not say whether Bout was part of the deal offered to Russia. Bout’s lawyer told RIA Novosti that he could not comment on the reports of a possible exchange involving his client, but added that “this may soon change.”
White House spokesman John Kirby told reporters Wednesday the focus was on getting Griner and Whelan home.
“We urge the Russians to move positively on that proposal, so we can get these two individuals home,” Kirby said. “The details of it, I think, are best left between us and our Russian counterparts.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry told Russian state media that Lavrov had not received any formal request from Blinken for a phone call. U.S. officials said a request for a phone call between Blinken and Lavrov was transmitted to the Russian Foreign Ministry on Wednesday morning.
If completed, the prisoner swap would be the second such deal since April, when the Biden administration agreed to release Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was jailed on drug-smuggling charges, in exchange for former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, who was convicted in 2020 of assaulting two Russian police officers.
But two former officials said an exchange involving Bout would mean giving up a notorious criminal whom the United States pursued for years, before his capture during an elaborate sting operation by the Drug Enforcement Administration.
“Victor Bout ups the ante quite a bit,” Robert Saale, a former FBI special agent who served as director of the interagency Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, said in an interview. “Here’s a person who was trading arms to bad guys who were using them to kill Americans. This isn’t a spy-for-a-spy-type deal like in the Cold War. This is a very bad person in terms of the harm he has caused the United States.”
Saale said releasing Bout would send a message that detaining Americans can yield major concessions from the U.S. government. But the administration, he added, is stuck “between a rock and a hard place” at this stage. A prisoner swap of this sort is “probably one of the only ways they’re going to get [Griner and Whelan] out.”
Another former official who worked on international prisoner exchanges said the Russians have raised the issue of Bout’s release many times before, but such an exchange “has always been a hard no” from the U.S. Justice Department.
“I know Blinken is having discussions, but I can’t imagine Blinken agreeing to it,” said the former official, adding that “lower-level criminals” who are nearing the end of their sentences would be more likely candidates for an exchange. The former official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the ongoing case.
Russian authorities in 2020 convicted Whelan, the corporate security director of an American auto parts supplier, of espionage, and sentenced him to 16 years of hard labor. Griner was arrested in February at a Moscow airport. Russian authorities detained her after finding two cannabis vape cartridges in her luggage.
Griner on Wednesday testified for the first time in her trial, which started early this month.
Speaking from behind the bars of the courtroom cage where defendants are contained during Russian trials, Griner told the court that Russian authorities had not read her rights during her arrest, and that she was pushed to sign documents that she did not understand.
The Phoenix Mercury standout, who had been playing in a Russian league during the WNBA offseason, testified that she had struggled to understand what was happening during the four-month criminal investigation that followed her arrest.
“I remember one time there was a stack of papers that [the translator] needed to translate for me,” she said. “He took a brief look and then said the exact words were, ‘Basically, you are guilty.’ ”
Griner, who pleaded guilty to the charges this month, told the court she had not intended to bring the vape cartridges into Russia, and that she was rushed and stressed while packing.
“I was in a huge hurry,” she said. She was also recovering from covid-19.
Prosecutors on Wednesday asked Griner whether she admitted to the crime, a key factor used by Russian courts to determine leniency in sentencing.
“As they ended up in my bags by accident, I take responsibility, but I did not intend to smuggle or plan to smuggle [banned substances] to Russia,” she said.
Griner testified that a doctor had prescribed the cannabis oil to treat pain and inflammation that resulted from sports injuries. She said many athletes used it.
In Russia, carrying even small amounts of the substance is illegal. The prosecution argues that the 0.702 grams of cannabis found in the cartridges constituted a “significant” amount.
Griner was aware of U.S. government warnings to avoid travel to Russia because of tensions between Washington and Moscow, but she said she was determined not to let down her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg.
Griner’s attorneys said she has not been permitted to call her family in the United States in the five months since her detention. When her lawyers requested that she be allowed to call them, the judge asked for a written motion.
Griner “explained to the court that she knows and respects Russian laws and never intended to break them,” her attorney Maria Blagovolina said after proceedings concluded Wednesday.
The trial will resume next week.
Griner’s supporters in the United States say she is a Russian “hostage,” but senior Russian Foreign Ministry officials have warned that political and public pressure for her release in the United States would not help her cause. They have hinted that Russia may consider a prisoner swap, but only after her trial is complete.
After hearing the news of the U.S. proposal, Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov, another lawyer for Griner, were quoted by Russian outlet RBC as saying: “From a legal point of view, the exchange is possible only after a court verdict. In any case, we will be glad if Brittney is soon at home and we hope that this will happen.”
The White House says that Griner is being held in “intolerable circumstances” and that it is doing everything possible to free her and other wrongfully detained prisoners, including Whelan. He denies the espionage charges, saying he was set up.
The United States’ efforts to free Griner and Whelan are being handled by the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.
Hudson reported from Gobles, Mich. Hauslohner reported from Washington. Devlin Barrett in Washington contributed to this report.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.
The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.
In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.
The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.