Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a surprise announcement on the Britney Griner case, saying Wednesday afternoon the United States is ready to cut a rare deal for her release from Russian custody. He said the Biden administration has made a "substantial proposal" to Moscow. Talks appear to have already been underway for weeks.
He also named imprisoned former Marine Paul Whelan, currently serving a 16-year prison sentence in Russia stemming from a "spying" conviction after what he and US officials have called a "sham trial", as part of the deal on the table. "We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release," Blinken said in a press briefing.
JUST IN: Sec. of State Antony Blinken says U.S. "put a substantial proposal on the table" to facilitate release of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner from Russia. https://t.co/hi29tu0lxM pic.twitter.com/o38OuvHVTC
— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) July 27, 2022
The Associated Press underscores "The statement marked the first time the US government has publicly revealed any concrete action it has taken to secure the release of Griner, who was arrested on drug-related charges at a Moscow airport in February and testified Wednesday at her trial."
Blinken didn't offer details of the arrangement Washington is offering, however. Likely the two American citizens' release would come in the form of a prisoner swap - though Russia might possibly demand sanctions relief - which would likely collapse any pending deal.
There's been widespread speculation that the US could release notorious Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout from custody, currently serving a 25-year federal prison sentence since 2012. Russian state media has frequently mentioned Bout's name over the past months as high on the foreign ministry's list of priorities.
CNN is reporting that indeed it's Viktor Bout that the US is offering to exchange, though Blinken himself did not publicly confirm this...
The Biden administration has offered to exchange Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout for Americans Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, per @CNN
Griner has been detained for 160 days. pic.twitter.com/iGcpT8P07v
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) July 27, 2022
Per a breaking CNN report:
After months of internal debate, the Biden administration has offered to exchange Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms trafficker serving a 25-year US prison sentence, as part of a potential deal to secure the release of two Americans held by Russia, Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, according to people briefed on the matter.
These sources told CNN that the plan to trade Bout for Whelan and Griner received the backing of President Joe Biden after being under discussion since earlier this year. Biden's support for the swap overrides opposition from the Department of Justice, which is generally against prisoner trades.
Despite Blinken not having spoken to his Russian counterpart since Feb.15 - just before the Russian invasion of Ukraine began - the AP cites the top US diplomat as indicating Wednesday "he had requested a call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov."
Griner testified on her own behalf in a Moscow court on Wednesday...
NEW AUDIO OF BRITTNEY GRINER IN COURT: WNBA star Brittney Griner claims she was never informed of her rights, was not provided thorough interpretations, and was not told which documents she was signing when she was detained in a Moscow airport in February pic.twitter.com/OnQfqheFcx
— KWTX News 10 (@kwtx) July 27, 2022
"U.S. officials said the desire for an answer on the prisoner offer was the primary, but not only, reason that the US on Wednesday requested the call with Lavrov," AP notes further. Blinken indicated he expects to speak with Lavrov on the matter in the "coming days".
The CNN report cited an administration official who said at the moment "the ball is in Russia's court" concerning the offer to do a prisoner swap.