For the first time, Russia has confirmed that negotiations with the United States are underway for a prisoner exchange to release WNBA star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, according to a report from the Washington Post.
The news comes a week after Griner was found guilty of drug charges in a Russian court and sentenced to nine years in prison. Whelan was arrested in 2018 on spying charges and sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2016; he and his family maintain that the charges against him were manufactured.
The Biden administration has said that the two Americans are both wrongfully detained and will take every possible step to ensure their expeditious return home.
"It is important for Brittney to come home," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said last week. "It is important for Paul Whelan to come home. The president is going to work every day very hard with his national security team to make that happen.”
"We have made a substantial offer to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home,” she added. “They need to be home. They should be home. They are being wrongfully detained.”
Multiple outlets have reported that the U.S. has offered to free Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. and once earned the nickname the “Merchant of Death.”
President Joe Biden said last week that his administration is “working hard” to secure her release, noting that he was “hopeful” about her return home.
Recently, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and urged him to accept a deal under which Griner and Whelan would go free. Lavrov said that Moscow was “ready to discuss” a swap, but it must be done privately through a channel established by President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting in Geneva last year.
"If the Americans again try to engage in public diplomacy and make loud statements about their intention to take certain steps, it's their business, I would even say their problem," Lavrov said. "The Americans often have trouble observing agreements on calm and professional work.”
Jean-Pierre agreed, saying last week: ”We've been very clear that we're not going to negotiate in public.”
According to the Washington Post, the talks were underway using the established channel.
“Instructions were given to authorized structures to carry out negotiations,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ivan Nechayev told journalists in Moscow on Thursday, according to the Post. “They are being conducted by competent authorities.”
Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said that he is “optimistic” about the possibility of a prisoner swap to bring Griner and Whelan home.
“I think she’s going to be freed,” Richardson told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “I think she has the right strategy of contrition, a good legal team. There’s going to be a prisoner swap, though. And I think it will be two-for-two involving Paul Whelan. We can’t forget him. He’s an American Marine wrongfully detained, too.”
It’s unclear who the second individual might be, but Richardson recently reiterated in an interview with The Associated Press that he thinks “a two-for-two deal is hopefully a likely outcome.”
While Richardson told the AP he feels “relatively positive” about Griner and Whelan’s return home, he warned that a prisoner swap might not be so easy between the U.S. and Russia.
“The relationship between the United States and Russia is quite toxic,” he said. “The geopolitical differences many times override the humanitarian issues that we need to deal with.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.