On Saturday, a Russian diplomat admitted for the first time that Russia has been engaged with the U.S. for a prisoner exchange that would involve trading Victor Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death” for American two-time Olympian basketball player Brittney Griner.
“The discussions on the very sensitive topic of an exchange are proceeding via the channels chosen by our presidents,” Alexander Datchiev, the head the North America department at the Russian Foreign Ministry, was quoted as saying by state news agency TASS.
“Silent diplomacy continues and should bear fruit if Washington, of course, is careful not to fall into propaganda,” he said.
Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport in February for possessing vape cartridges with a small amount of cannabis oil.
She was in Russia to play for the professional Yekaterinburg team and was charged with smuggling narcotics and sentenced to nine years in prison.
Bout was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and extradited to the U.S., where in 2012 he was sentenced to 25 years in prison on charges of arming rebels in some of the world’s bloodiest conflicts.
Russia has long sought Bout’s release calling his conviction “baseless and biased.”
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As reported in the Moscow Times in June 2021, Victor Bout’s then 85-year old Mother, Raisa, pleaded with both Putin and Biden before their meeting in Geneva to release her son.
“Mister Presidents, please come to an agreement.”
“As a mother who’s been waiting for her son for many years, I ask you: come to some sort of agreement so that my son comes back to me while I am still alive. Viktor has already lost 13 years of his life,” Raisa Bout said in the letter published by state news agency RIA Novosti.
“My son is not a terrorist, he is a businessman.”
Bill Richardson, the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, who has been involved in negotiated several American citizens’ released overseas said he was “optimistic” about efforts to negotiate a “two for two” prisoner swap with Russia.
“I think she’s going to be freed, I think she has the right strategy of contrition, there’s going to be a prisoner swap — though I think it will be two for two, involving Paul Whelan,” he told ABC’s “This Week,” insisting that he was only a “catalyst” in the negotiations.
Whelan is a former U.S. Marine who was convicted of espionage in June 2020 and sentenced to 16 years in prison. He has maintained his innocence.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken elevated this conversation in recent weeks.
“I expect to speak with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov for the first time since the [Ukraine] war began,” Blinken said in a recent press conference. “I plan to raise an issue that’s a top priority for us: the release of Americans Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner.”
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