Russia confirms it is looking for convicted arms dealer in possible prisoner swap for WNBA star Brittney Griner

For the first time since the arrest of WNBA star Brittney Griner for drug possession in February, Russia has officially confirmed that negotiations are underway with the US government regarding a possible prisoner exchange. On Saturday, the Moscow Times reported that Russia has officially acknowledged that it is looking for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout to be part of the deal.

“Discussions on the very sensitive subject of an exchange are taking place through the channels chosen by our presidents,” said Alexander Dachiev, head of the North America department at the Russian Foreign Ministry, according to Russian state news agency TASS. . “The silent diplomacy continues and should bear fruit if Washington, of course, is careful not to fall into propaganda.”

Bout, also known as “The Merchant of Death”, was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and later extradited to the United States. He was convicted of conspiring to kill Americans in 2011 and is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence.

Last week, Griner was convicted of drug trafficking in Russia and sentenced to nine years in prison. She has been in police custody since her arrest on February 17 at an airport near Moscow for having in her luggage vaping cartridges containing hashish oil, a concentrate of marijuana. His lawyers plan to appeal, but the United States government has also tried to help him.

After his sentencing, President Joe Biden told the media he was “hopeful” about the situation. In May, his administration declared Griner “wrongfully detained.” Last month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed that the US government had put a “substantial proposal on the table” for Griner’s release, although no details of the proposal were given.

Although Russia confirmed this week that negotiations were underway, it did not release any details on who would be involved in the swap. However, multiple outlets reported that Griner and corporate security director Paul Whelan would be part of a deal in exchange for Viktor Bout, a convicted arms dealer who is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence. in the USA. Whelan is serving a 16-year prison sentence. sentencing in Russia after he was arrested in 2018 and convicted of espionage in 2020. The Biden administration also considers Whelan “wrongfully detained.”

While the talks between Russia and the United States have been going on for months, Russian officials have preferred not to make their discussions public. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov have both said they prefer talks between the two countries to be private, taking place only through an established channel of communication that Biden and Vladimir Putin established in June 2021 when they met in Geneva.

“The United States has made mistakes before trying to resolve these issues through ‘microphone diplomacy’. They are not resolved that way,” Peskov said earlier this month.

For a full explainer on Griner’s situation, click here.

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