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Griner and Whelan Update: Russia Interested in 'Merchant of Death' Trade

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Friday that he’s open to a call with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to discuss a possible prisoner swap involving WNBA star Brittney Griner.

Blinken said Wednesday that Washington had offered Russia a deal that would bring home Griner and another jailed American, Paul Whelan.

A person familiar with the matter said the U.S. government proposed trading notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, once labeled the “Merchant of Death,” for the two Americans.

Speaking on a visit to Uzbekistan, Lavrov said his ministry had received an official U.S. request for a call after Blinken made the statement. Russia’s top diplomat said he would be ready once he returns to Moscow and that the timing of the call was being worked out.

Lavrov said he was open to discussing the prisoner exchange, even though the Foreign Ministry hasn’t been involved in previous discussions on the issue.

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“I will listen to what he has to say,” he said.

Asked Thursday about the U.S. offer, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov replied that prisoner swaps were typically negotiated discreetly behind the scenes.

“We know that such issues are discussed without any such release of information,” Peskov told reporters during a conference call. “Normally, the public learns about it when the agreements are already implemented.”

Blinken’s comments marked the first time the U.S. government publicly revealed any concrete action it has taken to secure Griner’s release.

Do you approve of exchanging Bout for Griner and Whelan?

The two-time Olympic gold medalist and player for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury was arrested at a Moscow airport in mid-February when inspectors found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage.

Her trial on drug charges started in a court outside Moscow this month. Griner testified Wednesday that she didn’t know how the cartridges ended up in her bag but said she had a doctor’s recommendation to use cannabis to treat career-related pain.

The 31-year-old has pleaded guilty but said she had no criminal intent in bringing the cartridges to Russia and packed in haste for her return to play in a Russian basketball league during the WNBA’s offseason.

She faces up to 10 years in prison.

The Biden administration has faced political pressure to free Griner and other Americans whom the U.S. has declared to be “wrongfully detained” — a designation sharply rejected by Russian officials.

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Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan, was sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges in 2020. The retired Marine and his family have vigorously asserted his innocence.

The U.S. government has denounced the charges as false, and Russia experts suggested Whelan was being held in retaliation for the U.S. indictment of Maria Butina, a 30-year-old Russian national who pleaded guilty on Dec. 13 to acting as an unregistered foreign agent of Russia.

Russia has for years expressed interest in the release of Bout. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012 on charges that he schemed to illegally sell millions of dollars in weapons.

Many have criticized the exchange of Bout for Griner and Whelan as a bad deal for the U.S.

“We’ve done swaps before. But this is disturbing … for who this person is. This is a Russian arms dealer [who was] arrested for attempting to kill Americans, who is assisting terrorists around the world,” retired Army Gen. Jack Keane said on Fox News.

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Bout trade offer sets a “dangerous precedent.”

“He’s a bad guy. He is a guy who wanted to kill Americans. It presents a real risk to the United States. … There’s a real reason the Russians want to get him home,” he said on Fox News.

The Western Journal has reviewed this Associated Press story and may have altered it prior to publication to ensure that it meets our editorial standards.

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