For the first time in months, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken indicated he will engage with his Russian counterpart about a “substantive plan” to release the Americans.
According to a person familiar with the talks, the Biden administration has proposed releasing the jailed Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for the release of Brittney Griner and Paul N. Whelan, two Americans who the State Department claims were wrongfully detained and are currently being held in prison in Russia.
In his first contact with his Russian colleague since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine five months ago, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken stated on Wednesday that the United States had “placed a meaningful proposition on the table” and that he would shortly advocate for the Americans’ return.
WHO IS VIKTOR BOUT?
In exchange for WNBA star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer dubbed the “Merchant of Death,” might be returned to his own country.
Bout, who is presently serving a 25-year term in a U.S. jail after being found guilty in 2011 of conspiring to kill Americans, conspiring to supply anti-aircraft missiles, and assisting a terrorist group, has long been a target of Russian authorities who have long called for his release.
He was apprehended in 2008 after a sting operation at a posh hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, when he met with Drug Enforcement Administration agents who were masquerading as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which US authorities have categorised as a terrorist organisation.
Two countries had “communicated repeatedly and directly”
Several weeks ago, Ms. Griner and Mr. Bout were proposed as a trade in Russian news media. At the time, American authorities refused to publicly address the proposal and emphasised their worry that foreign powers seeking concessions may be encouraged to hold Americans overseas.
To avoid jeopardising delicate discussions with Moscow, Mr. Blinken said on Wednesday that the two nations had “communicated often and clearly” about the idea. However, he would not go into further detail or explain the Russian reaction.
Speaking at the State Department, Mr. Blinken stated that he would persuade Sergey V. Lavrov, the foreign minister of Russia, to accept the suggestion when they spoke in the upcoming days. A meeting between the two men took place in Geneva in January, only a few weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 and nearly brought American diplomacy with that country to an end. At a meeting of the Group of 20 foreign ministers earlier this month in Bali, Mr. Blinken refrained from even extending his hand to shake Mr. Lavrov’s.
Particularly Ms. Griner, whose wife Cherelle and numerous Democratic-aligned political organisations have openly asked him to broker a deal to gain her release, has come under pressure for her release, and Mr. Biden has come under pressure to do it. Cherelle was addressed by Mr. Biden.