Several Russian state-run media sites have claimed that Russia wants to exchange WNBA star Brittney Griner for the Lord of War Viktor Bout.
For the first time, Russia appears to be deliberately signaling Washington about WNBA star and Olympic champion Brittney Griner, who has been kept in Russian custody since her arrest on drug charges at a Moscow airport three months ago (based on customs agents saying they found vape cartridges containing hashish oil as she arrived from New York).
Following the release of US citizen and former Marine Trevor Reed in late April, which saw Russian citizen Konstantin Yaroshenko released from US custody, the Kremlin appears to be ready to negotiate another prisoner exchange. Yaroshenko was a Russian civilian pilot serving a 20-year term in the United States for drug smuggling.
On Friday, several Russian state-run media sites quoted “unnamed government sources” as saying that Moscow wants Washington to hand over a prominent arms trafficker called Viktor Bout. Although no US government sources have confirmed this, Gazeta.Ru was the first to suggest that conversations between the two parties have actually begun.
“Currently, talks are underway on exchanging Bout for Griner,” a source was quoted as saying in the publications.” “Russian entrepreneur Viktor Bout who was sentenced in the US for arms sales may be traded for American basketball player Brittney Griner who is accused in Russia of drug trafficking, a source in the Public Monitoring Commission confirmed to TASS on Friday,” TASS wrote.
“Earlier, a source of the Gazeta.Ru news outlet reported that a process preparing for such an exchange had started,” the story added, referencing the successful Trevor Reed deal.
Who is Viktor Bout, though? The high-profile case, which saw US officials travel across the globe to apprehend him over a decade ago, is described as follows by Yahoo News:
Bout, whose exploits earned him the nickname the “Merchant of Death,” flooded fierce conflicts in Africa and the Middle East with weapons, U.S. authorities say. He was arrested during a sting operation in Thailand in 2008, extradited to the U.S. and sentenced to 25 years for conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens, delivery of anti-aircraft missiles and providing aid to a terrorist organization.
US officials have previously claimed that Russia has been attempting to stop his extradition:
After Bout’s arrest, the U.S. alleged that his Russian allies tried to block his extradition from Thailand to America by bribing key witnesses to give false testimony. Since his 2012 conviction, Bout has been at the top of Russia’s prisoner exchange wish list and has been linked repeatedly in the Russian state media with potential swaps involving jailed Americans that haven’t come to fruition.
There is currently talk that a Griner-for-Bout deal was discussed during US Ambassador John Sullivan’s visit to Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow on Wednesday.
Griner was spotted for the first time in a courtroom outside of Moscow this week. Her appeal for house arrest was denied, and her custody was extended for another 30 days.
A State Department statement earlier stated, “The welfare and safety of US citizens abroad is among the highest priorities of the US government.” “The Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained US citizen Brittney Griner.” It explained: “With this determination, the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens will lead the interagency team for securing Brittney Griner’s release.” The statement came after the United States proclaimed her “wrongfully detained” abroad.
Whether or whether the widespread rumors of talks for a Griner prisoner swap are true, it’s evident that the Russians are sending a strong message through this rush of official media reporting.