On Wednesday, the Biden administration said it had made a “substantial proposal” to Russia in order to free WNBA star Brittney Griner and another American Paul Whelan, both of whom are currently detained in Russia. CNN reported that the Biden administration has offered to swap Russian prisoner Viktor Bout for Griner and Whelan, both of whom have been designated by the U.S. State Department as wrongfully detained.
Griner was arrested in Russia in February on drug-related charges. She testified at her trial in Russian court on Wednesday she did not mean to travel with the cannabis oil cartridges that were found in her bag at a Moscow airport. Griner has said that she had no intention to break the law and that she uses the cannabis oil to help with pain and inflammation, as do many athletes. Whelan, a former Marine, was arrested in Moscow in 2018 on espionage charges. He has consistently denied the charges.
Bout, nicknamed by U.S. authorities as the “merchant of death” (a moniker that was by some accounts first given to Alfred Nobel for inventing weapons of mass death, and which was popularized in the 1930s as a description for U.S. defense contractors) supplied weapons in the 1990s and early 2000s not only to the Taliban, Liberia’s Charles Taylor, and Congolese warlords, but to the U.S. Army and other American defense contractors, and for years operated with the tacit permission of the U.S. government. Bout, who is eligible for release in 2029, was arrested in Bangkok in 2008 after the United States Drug Enforcement Agency initiated a sting operation in which Bout agreed to sell arms to agents posing as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
At Bout’s sentencing in 2012, a federal judge for the Southern District of New York recognized that he “was a well-known and longtime international arms dealer [who] supplied arms over the years to many violent regimes,” and then acknowledged the circumstances of his arrest. According to a transcript of the sentencing hearing shared with Defector, the judge said:
“But for the approach made through this determined sting operation, there is no reason to believe that Bout would ever have committed the charged crimes. It is certainly true that he may have continued to sell arms in other places in the world, but there is no reason to believe he would have committed any crime over which American courts have jurisdiction. As a justice of the United States Supreme Court recently said in a very different context, this country does not purport to be the Supreme Court of the entire world.”
Though the potential trade for Bout has been rumored for months, it was until today largely dismissed in media reports and by experts as unlikely, or even immoral. A month ago, the Associated Press wrote that trading Griner for Bout was “unpalatable,” and the Washington Post quoted an expert as saying it was “akin to negotiating with a terrorist.” However, as the AP reported today, the Biden administration offered this trade “weeks ago.” From the AP:
“[Secretary of State Antony] Blinken did not offer details on the proposed deal, which was offered weeks ago, though it is unclear if it will be enough for Russia to release the Americans. But 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.”
Earlier Wednesday, Trevor Reed—an American who was freed in a prisoner swap with Russia earlier this year—said that he thought the Biden administration wasn’t acting aggressively enough to secure Griner and Whelan’s freedom.
“I can’t say 100 percent what the White House is or is not doing—that’s obviously not public information,” Reed said to NBC. “But, in my opinion, the White House has the ability to get them out extremely fast, and they clearly have chosen not to do that. So no, in my opinion, they’re not doing enough.”
In a statement to Defector, Bout’s lawyer, Steve Zissou said, “This is a sensitive moment in these negations, so out of respect for the process and the families involved, I have no further comment at this time.”