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U.S. officials hope public pressure will bring Russian release of prisoners

From left, convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, WNBA basketball star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)
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The Biden administration disclosed publicly that the United States had made “a substantial offer” to Russia to secure the release of two American prisoners because closed-door negotiations had stalled, an administration official said Thursday.

The administration hopes public pressure will lead Moscow to engage in negotiations resulting in basketball star Brittney Griner and security consultant Paul Whelan being released from Russian prison, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive deliberations.

U.S. officials say they have tried for weeks to broker the releases of Griner and Whelan. But the lack of progress, and the prospect of Griner soon facing conviction and sentencing on drug charges, prompted the administration this week to make the negotiations public.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Wednesday told reporters that he had requested a phone call with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and that the United States had made a significant proposal to Russia as part of its efforts to free the Americans. Blinken said the United States had offered Russia the deal weeks ago.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Thursday that diplomatic silence typically surrounds negotiations regarding prisoner releases. Announcements are usually made “about agreements that have been completed,” Peskov said, and no agreements have been finalized.

The Russian government acknowledged Thursday that it had received Blinken’s request, but the media service Interfax reported that Lavrov would respond “when his own schedule allows.”

“Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will pay attention to this request as soon as time allows,” ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said, according to Interfax. “Currently, his schedule of international contacts is packed full of real affairs: the SCO [Shanghai Cooperation Organization] council of foreign ministers in Tashkent, bilateral meetings.”

Lavrov on Wednesday concluded a four-day trip to Africa and is now in Uzbekistan, part of a flurry of recent diplomatic visits, as Russia seeks to bolster its remaining partnerships amid deepening international isolation over its war in Ukraine.

A call between Blinken and Lavrov would be their first conversation since Jan. 21, when the two met in Geneva for a last-ditch U.S. diplomatic effort to avoid war in Ukraine. Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.

Griner, 31, who had been playing in a Russian league during the WNBA offseason, has been detained since February on drug charges after Russian authorities found two cannabis oil vape cartridges in her luggage at Moscow’s airport.

Griner’s trial has been ongoing for nearly a month. She has pleaded guilty in the charges and testified for the first time on Wednesday, asking for leniency. Griner faces up to 10 years in prison.

Whelan, 52, is serving a 16-year sentence of hard labor after being convicted in 2020 of espionage. The former security consultant’s Russian attorney said Whelan was visiting Russia for a friend’s wedding when he was unwittingly handed a flash drive containing state secrets.

Whelan has denied the charges and says he was framed. The Biden administration has classified both Americans’ detention as unlawful.

Blinken this week did not mention Marc Fogel, a third American and former teacher at the Anglo-American School in Moscow, who is serving a 14-year sentence in Russia. Fogel, like Griner, was caught bringing medically prescribed cannabis into Russia.

The Biden administration’s disclosure of a “substantial proposal” involving Griner and Whelan has fueled speculation about a potential prisoner exchange involving the notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, 55, nicknamed the “Merchant of Death,” who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in Illinois for conspiring to kill U.S. nationals and selling weapons to terrorists.

The Kremlin has long pushed for Bout’s release as part of a prisoner swap, claiming his 2011 conviction by a New York court was “unlawful.” It took U.S. law enforcement officials years to apprehend Bout — whose exploits supplying weapons to wars and warlords across Africa inspired the Hollywood film “Lord of War” — before his capture during a complex Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation in Thailand.

“Lavrov used to bring him up almost every meeting, when he met with Secretaries Clinton and Kerry,” said Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia and on the National Security Council during the Obama administration. McFaul, who now teaches at Stanford University, speculates that Bout had strong ties to Russian intelligence.

“Putin is very loyal to his comrades . . . they really want him out,” McFaul said. “And I would hope that we would get a lot for that. I would hope that one criminal for three innocent Americans — that’s a pretty good trade.”

Past administrations have resolutely declined the option of releasing Bout as part of a prisoner swap, and speculation about his release this week has fueled criticism from some former officials who say it would send a dangerous message to U.S. adversaries that American hostages can be used to broker considerable concessions.

A Democratic congressional aide said the State Department briefed lawmakers Thursday about the ongoing negotiations but provided scant details. Lawmakers raised reports that the Justice Department remains opposed to a prisoner swap, which the administration officials did not dispute, said the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private briefing.

Biden administration officials have repeatedly declined to say whether Bout’s release is part of the deal offered to Russia.

Bout’s wife, Alla Bout, wrote that their family “will keep our fingers crossed and believe that soon we will see Viktor at home.” She expressed the hope in a post Thursday on VKontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned this month that grandstanding by U.S. officials on prisoner swaps would only raise tensions and hamper possible interactions on prisoner exchanges.

McFaul, who helped broker the 2010 U.S.-Russian swap that involved the release of 10 Russian spies — the largest such exchange since the Cold War — said he couldn’t “imagine that Secretary Blinken would have [publicized negotiations] if he didn’t know a deal was coming.”

“It suggests to me that there has to be some real momentum there,” said McFaul, who cautioned that he has no internal insight into negotiations on the prisoners but said making such talks public is “unusual.” The 2010 exchange was “a pretty big, complicated deal,” he said. “We didn’t announce anything until they were on the tarmac.”

U.S. officials have acknowledged they are walking a fine line between applying public and private pressure.

“We try very hard to be very careful in the public sphere about how much we say,” White House spokesman John Kirby told reporters Wednesday. The administration determined that “it was an appropriate time to talk about these efforts. But I will tell you that even that decision was not taken lightly. And we’re going to continue in private to work through the negotiations.”

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“We had conveyed this substantial proposal directly and repeatedly to Russian counterparts . . . over the course of several weeks,” he said during a Thursday news briefing.

A senior State Department official said this week that the administration also hoped that by speaking publicly about Blinken’s outreach to Lavrov, it would prevent Moscow from spinning the negotiations as the United States returning to “business as usual” with Russia, or casting U.S. outreach as a willingness to negotiate on Ukraine.

Blinken said Wednesday that in addition to discussing the American prisoners, he would reiterate the United States’ and other countries’ expectation that Russia will “follow through on its pledge” to allow grain shipments out of Ukraine. But the call with Lavrov “will not be a negotiation about Ukraine,” he said. “Any negotiation regarding Ukraine is for its government and people to determine.”

WNBA star Brittney Griner testified July 27 in her Moscow trial on drug charges. She said that her rights weren't read when she was detained in February. (Video: Reuters)

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Proposal for Griner, Whelan follows history of U.S.-Russia prisoner swaps

Whelan’s twin brother, David Whelan, told The Washington Post on Thursday that the family is able to communicate with him “almost daily” and that it would “mean the world” to his family if Whelan came home, but they had not heard anything from the administration about a deal.

“He did not call yesterday, and so we do not know what he knows. He will most likely have seen something on Russian TV in the labor colony, and other prisoners will translate the Russian for him,” David Whelan said.

“We’re grateful that the Biden administration appears to be moving more decisively on the issue of wrongfully detained Americans,” he added.

Griner’s agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas told The Post on Thursday that Griner’s wife was not speaking to media until the trial concludes.

“[W]hile we remain hopeful that BG and other Americans can all quickly return home, given that her trial is ongoing, our sole focus remains on supporting BG and her family through that process,” Kagawa Colas tweeted Wednesday.

Dixon reported from Riga, Latvia. Adela Suliman in London and Mary Ilyushina and Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.