After months of what seemed like no movement, news broke Wednesday that the Biden administration had actually made a “substantial offer” to Russia for a prisoner exchange for WNBA star Brittney Griner.
The deal would see the two-time Olympic gold medalist and Paul Whelan, who has been detained in Russia on alleged espionage charges since 2018, exchanged for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout.
“We communicated a substantial offer that we believe could be successful based on a history of conversations with the Russians,” a senior administration official told CNN. “We communicated that a number of weeks ago, in June.”
As news of the offer made headlines, the Russian government was not happy about the talks going public. Per ESPN, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov commented on the possible exchange during a press conference call.
“We know that such issues are discussed without any such release of information,” Peskov said. “Normally, the public learns about it when the agreements are already implemented.”
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova explained that talks have happened between the two countries but, “there has been no concrete result yet.”
“We proceed from the assumption that interests of both parties should be taken into account during the negotiations,” Zakharova said.
It’s true that these sorts of talks usually stay private until the prisoners are back on their own soil or that of close allies. When Trevor Reed was released in April, his family didn’t find out until he was on a plane home. In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Reed said he didn’t even know what was going on until he was on a plane in Turkey.
It seems the Phoenix Mercury center’s high-profile status and the publicity surrounding her case has changed the way things normally get done.
Since rumors of the possible deal began swirling months ago, there’s been a lot of controversy about releasing such a dangerous foreign criminal, even if it means Griner and Whelan get to return home to their families.
Bout is a terrorist. He’s currently serving 25 years in federal prison for “conspiring to sell 700-800 surface-to-air missiles, over 20,000 AK-47 firearms, 10 million rounds of ammunition, five tons of C-4 plastic explosives, ‘ultralight’ airplanes outfitted with grenade launchers, and unmanned aerial vehicles to terrorist group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia.”
Russia has wanted Bout back for years, so this seems like a good offer for the government. However, the talks being so public doesn’t help the Kremlin maintain its tough facade. Let’s hope this sudden change in the status quo doesn’t hinder Brittney or Paul’s chances to reunite with their families.