September 24, 2022

President Joe Biden has reportedly offered to trade Russian arms dealer Viktor Burt — nicknamed the “merchant of death” — for two high-profile American prisoners in Russia, Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.

If successful, such a deal would be the latest in a long history of prisoner swaps dating back decades between the former Cold War rivals.

These sometimes bold deals are often the result of intense back-channel negotiations, as imprisoned civilians become pawns in a wider geopolitical war.

WNBA superstar Brittney Griner has been jailed for five months after being found with a small amount of cannabis vapor upon arrival at a Moscow airport in February. In the middle of the trial she pleaded guilty to drug possession and is awaiting sentencing.

Paul Whelan was arrested in 2018 on suspicion of espionage and sentenced to 16 years of hard labor in a prison labor camp in 2020. His family said the charges are false.

Viktor Bout, Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan


Viktor Bout, a former Soviet soldier, is serving a 25-year sentence at the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, after being found guilty of conspiracy to kill Americans, acquiring and exporting anti-aircraft missiles and providing material support to a terrorist organization. He maintains his innocence.

2022: Paul Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko

US-Russia relations fell to their lowest level since the fall of the USSR after Vladimir Putin ordered Russian forces to invade Ukraine in February.

Former US Marine Trevor Reed was released from a Russian prison in April in a prisoner swap

(NBC News Now)

It suggested a further downturn in the fortunes of former US Marine Trevor Reid, 30, who has lobbied successive presidents for his release since he was arrested in 2019 and charged with assaulting two police officers while drunk in Moscow. Reid was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2020.

Despite rapidly deteriorating relations between the two countries, however, an exchange was arranged for convicted Russian drug trafficker Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was sentenced to 20 years in US prison in 2010.

After his release, Mr. Reid said CNN “would not let myself hope” for freedom during his 985 days in prison.

a Biden administration official said CNN the agreement was the result of “months and months of hard, careful work across the US government.”

2010: Sergei Skripal the double agent and Anna Chapman the sleeping spy

An FBI investigation revealed the existence of a Russian sleeper cell operating in the US in 2010.

Anna Chapman pictured in New York before her 2010 spying arrest


The group of 10 agents had been planted in the US by the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service, and posed as ordinary citizens while trying to infiltrate the lives of influential Americans and obtain state secrets.

The glamorous Anna Chapman, who played the CEO of a real estate company, grabbed most of the headlines.

After pleading guilty to failing to register as foreign agents, the 10 were flown to Vienna before being flown back to Russia in exchange for four nationals jailed for helping to spy on the homeland.

Military personnel in Salisbury investigate the poisoning of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in 2018


Among them was Sergei Skripal, who in 2018 made headlines after he and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with the Novichok nerve agent by two would-be Russian assassins in the English city of Salisbury.

The pair survived but Dawn Sturgess, a British national who accidentally came into contact with the nerve agent, later died, sparking a major international standoff between the UK and Russia.

Chapman, who became a model and TV presenter after returning to Russia, called Skripal a “traitor” after his poisoning.

Cold War: Bridge of Spies

In 1957, Soviet spy Rudolf Abel was arrested in New York and convicted as part of a deep cover espionage operation. He had posed as an artist and had a studio in Brooklyn.

Tom Hanks played James Donovan in the 2015 film about a dramatic Cold War prisoner exchange

(Dream Works)

His appointed counsel James Donovan resisted CIA efforts to turn over their private communications and appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court, citing illegal law enforcement tactics. It was narrowly defeated 5-4.

Mr. Donovan, later portrayed by Tom Hanks in the 2015 film Bridge of Spieshe helped Abel avoid the death penalty by convincing a judge that he might be useful in a future prisoner exchange, and was instead sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Mr Donovan faced harassment and abuse for his staunch defense of the Russian spy.

In May 1960, American pilot Gary Powers, flying a mission for the CIA’s top-secret U-2 spy plane program, was shot down over the Soviet Union.

Two years later, Mr Donovan was contacted by someone claiming to be Abel’s wife in East Germany.

At the behest of the CIA, Mr Donovan traveled to East Berlin as the Berlin Wall was being erected in 1962. He successfully negotiated the release of Mr Powers and a second American prisoner, Frederick Pryor, with the high-risk exchanges taking place at the Glienicke Bridge and checkpoint Charlie.

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