November 28, 2023

Despite reports of a possible prisoner swap to bring home Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, an agreement between the United States and Russia to release the imprisoned Americans still appears to be a long way off.

A top White House official criticized Russia CNN interview Saturday for trying to attack an additional convict — a murderer tried, convicted and imprisoned in Germany — in the United States’ proposed prisoner swap of Griner and Whelan with notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Brittney Griner.

Griner is competing for Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics.

Charlie Neibergall/AP

John Kirby, the Biden administration’s National Security Council Strategic Communications Coordinator, called the Kremlin’s counterproposal “a bad-faith attempt to avoid a very serious offer and proposal that the United States has made.”

“Holding two American citizens hostage in exchange for a murderer in a third country is not a serious counteroffer,” Kirby said, adding: “We urge Russia to take [our] offers seriously”.

Even despite his criticism of Moscow’s countermeasures, Kirby was reluctant to agree that talks between the two superpowers had “stalled”. He also denied that the Russians “hold the cards,” as CNN’s Jim Ciuto put it, at the negotiating table.

John Kirby.

John Kirby, the National Security Council’s Strategic Communications Coordinator for the Biden administration, speaks at a press conference at the White House.

REUTERS/Lea Millis

Instead, Kirby underscored the Biden administration’s stance since early May, when they called Griner “unreasonably incarcerated.” A source told Insider that the reclassification sends a “strong message that the US government does not believe there is a legitimate case against it.”

“We really want to see Brittney and Paul go back to their families, where they belong,” Kirby said. “They are being held there unfairly and we will continue to work.”

Griner, an eight-time WNBA All-Star, has been in custody in Russia since Feb. 17. The 6-foot-6 Phoenix Mercury center was charged with large-scale drug trafficking and taken to a Russian prison shortly after customs agents at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport claimed to have found vapor cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.

Brittney Griner in Russia

Griner is scheduled for a July hearing in the Russian court.


Whelan, meanwhile, has been illegally detained in Russia since December 2018. The former Marine turned security operative was arrested in a Moscow hotel on suspicion of being an American spy. He was subsequently convicted of espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison in Russia, with the possibility of serving his sentence in a labor camp.

Although Griner’s trial — which legal experts have described as a “show trial” with a “predetermined” outcome — is still ongoing, sources have repeatedly told Insider that a prisoner swap is the most likely path to Griner’s return. The same goes for Whelan.

The US government’s offer to release Bout is serious. Known to many as the ‘Merchant of Death’, the 55-year-old is notorious for supplying rebel and terrorist organizations with weapons that have fueled bloody wars across Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

American prisoner Paul Whelan holds a sign before a hearing in Moscow.

American prisoner Paul Whelan holds a sign before a hearing in Moscow.

REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

However, Bout’s 2008 arrest in Thailand was not actually based on charges of high-risk trafficking operations that have since served as inspiration for several films, documentaries and books. Instead, he has been in custody overseas for more than a decade after being caught in a US Drug Enforcement Agency sting operation.

US officials lured the elusive arms dealer to work with alleged representatives of a Colombian guerrilla group. He offered to sell weapons to the rebels, even with the understanding that the materials could have been used to kill Americans.

Soon after, Bout was arrested in Bangkok and, after an extensive court battle and protests from the Russian government, was extradited to the US. Nearly four years after his initial arrest, Booth was convicted of three felonies and given a minimum sentence of 25 years.

Victor Booth.

Victor Booth.


Expert opinions vary on whether the arms dealer would still pose a threat to the national security of the United States if released. And although Bout has already served 11 years of his sentence, many see his release as a major concession by the US government.

Adding another dangerous criminal — Vadim Krashikov, who was convicted late last year of murdering a man in broad daylight — would make the deal even less palatable to those worried about the initial trade proposed by the Biden administration.

Griner’s Russian legal representation previously estimated she would be sentenced sometime in August. The 31-year-old is expected to appear in court again this week.

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