The United States has offered to exchange Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for two Americans currently held in Russian prisons. WNBA star Brittney Griner is currently on trial in a Moscow court on drug charges, while Paul Whelan, a security consultant, was arrested on espionage charges in 2020 and is serving a 16-year sentence.
Bout, known as “The Merchant of Death,” was convicted in 2011 of selling arms to Colombian terrorists. The prisoner swap — if it goes through — will not be popular with U.S. law enforcement, who worked for years to trap and capture the terrorist.
Griner was caught carrying vials of cannabis oil through a Russian airport in February. She says she doesn’t know how the vials got in her bag but says she has a doctor’s prescription because of pain caused by sports injuries.
Whelan apparently knew an FSB agent for years and may — or may not — have obtained a classified list of employees from the agency. He claims he’s innocent and was railroaded by the Russian court.
Though it is unclear if the proposal will be enough for Russia to release the Americans, the public acknowledgment of the offer at a time when the U.S. has otherwise shunned Russia reflects the mounting pressure on the administration over Griner and Whelan and its determination to get them home.
It also signals a growing acceptance by the White House of prisoner swaps as resolutions for cases of Americans jailed overseas, particularly after a trade in April that secured the release of Marine veteran Trevor Reed and yielded a much-needed publicity win for the administration.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release,” Blinken said. “Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal, and I’ll use the conversation to follow up personally and, I hope, to move us toward a resolution.”
Blinken is trying to arrange a phone conversation with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss the swap. It would be the first contact between the two since the Ukraine war started in February.
Blinken said he would also be speaking to Lavrov about the importance of Russia complying with a U.N.-brokered deal to free multiple tons of Ukrainian grain from storage and warning him about the dangers of possible Russian attempts to annex portions of eastern and southern Ukraine.
“There is utility to conveying clear, direct messages to the Russians on key priorities for us,” including the release of Griner and Whelan, he said. They also include “what we’re seeing and hearing around the world is a desperate need for the foods, the desperate need for prices to decrease.”
If the swap is successful, wouldn’t this set a very bad precedent? Yes, it would, but the political benefits to Biden outweigh any danger to Americans traveling abroad. Biden’s agreement to exchange a terrorist for a basketball star and security consultant puts a bullseye on the back of Americans overseas — not just in Russia but everywhere that a thug thinks he can grab an American and exchange him or her for someone in our jails.
Future hostages have Joe Biden to thank for their ordeal.