(Daily Mail) The Biden administration has offered to exchange a Russian arms dealer serving 25 years in a U.S. prison for WBNA star Britney Griner and Marine veteran Paul Whelan in a historic prisoner swap.
Viktor Bout, who has been dubbed the Merchant of Death and was the inspiration for Nicolas Cage’s character in the 2005 film Lord of War, is behind bars on arms trafficking charges.
The former Soviet officer, 55, illegally sold 700 surface-to-air missiles, thousands of guns, high-tech helicopters and planes fitted with grenade launches and counted the Taliban, Muammar Gaddafi and Liberian dictator Charles Taylor as his clients.
Griner has been detained in Russia since she allegedly smuggled vape cartridges containing cannabis oil through a Moscow airport in February and Whelan has been accused of spying.
Biden has been under pressure from their families to have them both released as Vladimir Putin continues his rampage across Ukraine.
John Kirby, the Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the National Security Council, said on Wednesday that the offer had been made several weeks ago and urged the Russians to ‘take it seriously’.
But he declined to confirm specifics beyond that it was an effort to free the two detained Americans.
‘It’s not going to help us get them home if we’re negotiating in public with you all,’ he told reporters.
Nor would he respond directly when asked if Russia had responded directly to the offer.
‘I don’t want to get into the details of negotiation,’ Kirby said.
Asked about the utility of publicly confirming the offer, Kirby pointed to Griner’s testimony Wednesday in her ongoing trial. He said it was ‘an appropriate time to talk about these efforts.’
‘We believe that this is a serious proposal and we want the Russians to take it seriously as well,’ said Kirby.
CNN first reported on the outlines of the deal, which it said had earned Biden’s backing.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged the issue Wednesday, without confirming the proposed swap.
‘In the coming days I expect to speak with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov for the first time since the war began. I plan to raise an issue that’s a top priority for us; the release of Americans Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner who’ve been wrongfully detained,’ he said.
Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport in February on drug possession charges. She spoke at her ongoing trial in Moscow Wednesday.
‘We communicated a substantial offer that we believe could be successful based on a history of conversations with the Russians,’ a senior administration told the publication. ‘We communicated that a number of weeks ago, in June.’
Top administration officials have repeatedly refused to confirm such a trade on the record when asked about it.
Griner acknowledged in court earlier this month that she had vape cartridges containing cannabis oil when she arrived in Russia but contends she had no criminal intent and the cartridges ended up in her luggage inadvertently.
Her defense team is hoping for a lenient sentence, although she could face years in prison.
Whelan’s family has been pushing for top officials to secure his release for years. He has been held since 2018. The pressure only increased after the administration was able to secure the release of another Marine veteran, Trevor Reed, in another swap with Russia in April.