Despite reporting of a potential prisoner exchange to bring home Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, a deal between the United States and Russia to free the detained Americans still appears to be a ways away.
A top White House official slammed Russia in a CNN interview Saturday for attempting to tack on an additional convict — a murderer who was tried, sentenced, and imprisoned in Germany — to the United States’ proposed prisoner exchange of Griner and Whelan for notorious arms dealer Victor Bout.
John Kirby, the Biden administration’s National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications, called the Kremlin’s counteroffer “a bad faith attempt to avoid a very serious offer and proposal that the United States has put forward.”
“Holding two American citizens hostage in exchange for an assassin in a third-party country is not a serious counteroffer,” Kirby said, adding: “We urge Russia to take [our] offer seriously.”
Even despite his criticism of Moscow’s counter, Kirby was hesitant to agree that discussions between the two superpowers had “stalled.” He also denied that the Russians “hold the cards,” as CNN’s Jim Sciutto phrased his question about him, at the negotiating table.
Instead, Kirby underscored the Biden administration’s stance since early May, when they designated Griner as “wrongfully detained.” A source previously told Insider that the classification change sends a “strong signal that the US government does not believe that there is a legitimate case against her.”
“We very much want to see Brittney and Paul come home to their families, where they belong,” Kirby said. “They’re wrongfully detained there, and we’re just gonna keep at that work.”
Griner, an eight-time WNBA All-Star, has been in Russian custody since February 17. The 6-foot-9 Phoenix Mercury center was charged with the large-scale transportation of drugs and moved to a Russian jail shortly after customs agents at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport claimed to have found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.
Whelan, meanwhile, has been wrongfully detained in Russia since December 2018. The former Marine-turned-security executive was arrested at a Moscow hotel over suspicions that he was an American spy. He was subsequently convicted of espionage and sentenced to 16 years in Russian prison, with the possibility of serving time at a labor camp.
Though Griner’s trial — which legal experts characterize as a “show trial” with a “predetermined” outcome — is still underway, sources have repeatedly told Insider that a prisoner exchange is Griner’s most likely path home. The same goes for Whelan.
The US government’s offer to release Bout is a serious one. Known to many as the “Merchant of Death,” the 55-year-old is infamous for supplying rebel groups and terrorist organizations with weapons that fueled bloody wars across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
However, Bout’s 2008 arrest in Thailand was not actually based on charges for the high-stakes trafficking operations that have since served as inspiration for several movies, documentaries, and books. Instead, he has been in foreign custody for over a decade after he was caught in a US Drug Enforcement Agency sting operation.
American officials lured the elusive arms distributor to engage with purported representatives of a Colombian guerilla group. He offered to sell weapons to the rebels, even with the understanding that the materials could have been used to kill Americans.
Soon after, Bout was arrested in Bangkok and, following an extended legal battle and protests from the Russian government, extradited to the US. Nearly four years after his initial capture of him, Bout was convicted of a trio of crimes and handed his minimum 25-year sentence.
Expert opinions vary on whether the weapons dealer would still pose a national security threat to the United States if he were set free. And even though Bout has already served 11 years of his sentence, many see his release of him as a major concession from the US government.
Adding another dangerous criminal — Vadim Krasikov, who was convicted late last year of killing a man in broad daylight — would make the deal even less palatable to those concerned about the initial trade proposed by the Biden administration.
Griner’s Russian legal representation previously estimated that she’d be sentenced sometime in August. The 31-year-old is expected to appear in court again this week.