Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that the United States made a “substantial” proposal to Russia to bring home wrongfully detained WNBA star Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, who is also serving a prison sentence in Russia.
CNN reported that the U.S. offered Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer nicknamed “The Merchant of Death,” for the prisoner swap. A prisoner swap freed former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed from a Russian penal colony in April.
Blinken added he would engage with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. It was the first public acknowledgement of a deal that could involve a prisoner swap or addressing the sanctions placed on the country after it invaded Ukraine.
“My hope would be that in speaking to Foreign Minister Lavrov, I can advance the efforts to bring them home,” Blinken said.
Blinken said President Joe Biden has been directly involved in the negotiations and he signed off on the offer to Moscow.
The president “signs off on any proposal that we make, certainly when it comes to Americans who are being arbitrarily detained abroad, including in this specific case,” Blinken said.
He said the U.S. agreement to free American Trevor Reed shows that Biden “is prepared to make tough decisions if it means the safe return of Americans.”
Blinken added: “There is utility in sending clear, direct messages to the Russians on key priorities for us. These include the return of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, and following through on the grain agreement.“
Griner appeared in court Wednesday for the sixth time since her trial began July 1. She has been detained on drug charges for carrying vape cartridges containing marijuana while traveling to the country on Feb. 17. Her detention in Russia, regardless of a verdict, has been authorized until Dec. 20. Whelan has been in custody since 2018 and is serving a 16-year sentence on espionage charges the U.S. disputes.
Griner testified for the first time Wednesday, and John Kirby, the White House national security spokesman, signaled it was an appropriate time to share their efforts.
“No decision to talk about these issues are made lightly,” Kirby said. “We think through every step so carefully. I can promise you this decision to talk about it was made in the same vein and in the context of what’s going on in both cases.”
The government tried to contact both families in advance of Blinken’s news conference, Kirby said. Details remain scarce, he said, because the U.S. doesn’t want to negotiate in public but wanted Americans and the world to know it was being addressed.
David Whelan, the brother of Paul Whelan, told USA TODAY: “We’re grateful that the Biden Administration is looking for ways to bring Paul home. The public announcement of a concession of any kind seems pretty extraordinary to me. I’ve not heard of one being made prior to it being accepted. Hopefully Foreign Minister Lavrov, and President Putin, will be open to the offer. It would be great to have Paul home.”
Bout was handed a 25-year sentence in 2012 for conspiring to sell weapons to people who planned to kill Americans.
“He’s a bad dude,” Rob Saale, a former hostage negotiator with the FBI, told USA TODAY Sports.
Any deal involving him would involve multiple U.S. prisoners, Saale said. Blinken wouldn’t comment on the Russian response to the offer, although CNN reported it was floated last month.
“I’m not going to characterize it,” Blinken said. “My interest and my focus is that to the best of my ability, we get the yes.
“This is something that we are focused on 24/7.”
The WNBA and Players’ Association did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Contributing: Lindsay Schnell; Associated Press
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.