Brittney Griner Russia Trade: Veterans’ Ambassador Hoping for Opportunities

The US has reportedly offered to release Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer once nicknamed the “Dealer of Death,” in exchange for Griner and Whelan.

WASHINGTON — Bill Richardson, the former US ambassador to the United Nations and frequent emissary in hostage negotiations, said Tuesday he was hopeful about the chances of a two-for-two prisoner swap leading to the WNBA star’s release by Russia could Brittney Griner and another imprisoned American, Paul Whelan.

In cases like this, Richardson said in an interview with The Associated Press, “It’s proportional — two for two.”

richardson, who have traveled to Russia before Moscow released a naval veteran Trevor Reed on a prisoner swap in April, declined to discuss the current status of negotiations with Russia over Griner or Whelan, or explain what role he might play in the talks.

But he said he feels “relatively positive” for a number of reasons. For one, the conclusion of the criminal case against Griner last week—it was her convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison on drug allegations – provides an opportunity for serious diplomatic negotiations. Furthermore, he said, the US and Russia had already shown their willingness to conduct prisoner swaps, as evidenced by the Reed swap. And Griner’s strategy of expressing remorse in a Russian court was important.

“And so I think a two-for-two deal is hopefully a likely outcome,” Richardson said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken took the unusual step of publicly revealing last month that the US had made a “substantive proposal” in June to bring Griner and Whelan home. He didn’t elaborate, but AP and other news organizations have reported that the US has offered a release Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year sentence in the US and once earned the nickname “Merchant of Death”.

The White House said Russia had made a counter-offer that the United States did not consider serious.

It’s not clear which other Russian could be included in a two-for-two deal if it goes through.

Griner, the most prominent American woman to be detained by a foreign government, has admitted vape canisters of cannabis oil were in her luggage when she was arrested at a Moscow airport in February. But she insisted she had no criminal intent and that the canisters ended up in her luggage because she was hastily packing. Griner played for a Russian women’s basketball team in the WNBA off-season.

Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive, was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison on espionage charges he and his family say were fabricated. The US government considers both him and Griner to be unjustly detainees.

Though Richardson said he’s cautiously optimistic, and though there’s recent precedent for prisoner swaps, such deals don’t come easy.

“The relationship between the United States and Russia is quite toxic,” he said. “The geopolitical differences often overshadow the humanitarian issues we need to address.” Brittney Griner Russia Trade: Veterans’ Ambassador Hoping for Opportunities

Laura Coffey

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