LONDON: Russia on Thursday said there was no deal yet with the United States on swapping detained US basketball star Brittney Griner and a former marine for a jailed Russian cast by prosecutors as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States had made a “substantial offer” to Russia to release US citizens held in Russia, and a source said that Washington was willing to exchange convicted arms trafficker Viktor Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov expressed surprise at the public remarks from Blinken. Russia has repeatedly cautioned Washington that such discussions are best conducted in private.
“So far there are no agreements in this area,” Peskov told reporters in Moscow. “When discussing such topics, you don’t conduct information attacks.”
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova indicated that talks on prisoner exchanges had been going on for some time but without a result.
Families of hostages and detainees have been increasing pressure on US President Joe Biden, most recently in the case of two-time Olympic medalist Griner, who has been held since February. This may explain Washington’s eagerness to make public statements about the negotiations.
GRINER FOR BOUT
For the two former Cold War foes, now grappling with the worst relations in a generation due to the war in Ukraine, the exchange would mark one of the more extraordinary prisoner swaps in their history.
Griner, a Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) star, was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on Feb. 17 with vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.
Griner has pleaded guilty to the charges against her but has denied that she intended to break Russian law.
“I do plead guilty because of the actions that have happened but again, I did not intend to smuggle or bring any substance into Russia,” she told a Russian court on Wednesday.
Griner said she still did not understand how the vape cartridges containing hashish oil could have ended up in her luggage. The next hearing is set for Aug. 2.
But she is unlikely to be swapped until there is a verdict — that could happen by mid August, her lawyers said.
“From a legal point of view, an exchange is only possible after a court verdict,” Griner’s lawyer in Russia, Maria Blagovolina, said in a statement.
The other American, former Marine Paul Whelan, who holds US, British, Canadian and Irish passports, was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in jail for spying.
Russia said Whelan was caught with classified information in a Moscow hotel room where agents from the Federal Security Service detained him on Dec. 28, 2018. He denies that he committed espionage.
Bout, a former Soviet military translator who the United States said became one of the world’s preeminent arms dealers, is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States. He has always proclaimed his innocence.
The subject of the book “Merchant of Death” and the inspiration for Nicolas Cage’s character in the 2005 movie “Lord of War,” Bout supplied military-grade weaponry to conflict zones around the world, according to US prosecutors.
He was arrested in Bangkok in 2008 in a sting operation in which US Drug Enforcement Administration informants posed as representatives of the Colombian rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
Russia has said that the case against him was fabricated by US special services.
A federal jury in 2011 found Bout guilty on charges including conspiracy to kill US nationals and officers and conspiring to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles. He was sentenced in 2012 to 25 years in prison.
In 2011, then US Attorney General Eric Holder said: “One of the world’s most prolific arms dealers is being held accountable for his sordid past.
“Viktor Bout’s arms trafficking activity and support of armed conflicts have been a source of concern around the globe for decades. Today, he faces the prospect of life in prison for his efforts to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons to terrorists for use in killing Americans.”