From Bridge of Spies to Anna Chapman and Viktor Bout: A history of US-Russian prisoner swaps

The former Cold War adversaries have pulled off yet another notable exchange

Bevan Hurley
Thursday 08 December 2022 14:54 GMT
Joe Biden says Brittney Griner is ‘on her way home’ after release from ‘hell’ of Russian prison

Brittney Griner has been freed from a Russian penal colony after months of delicate negotiations between officials in Washington DC and Moscow.

President Joe Biden said on Thursday the US had secured the WNBA star’s release in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout — nicknamed the “merchant of death”. Russians refused to include former US Marine Paul Whelan, who is serving a 16 year prison term for espionage, in the deal.

The trade is the latest in a lengthy history of prisoner exchanges going back decades between the former Cold War adversaries.

These at-times daring transactions are often the result of intense back channel negotiations, as imprisoned citizens become pawns in a broader geopolitical war.

2022: Brittney Griner for Viktor Bout

Ms Griner had been incarcerated for nine months after she was found with a small amount of cannibas vape while arriving at a Moscow airport to play basketball for a local side in February.

She pleaded guilty to drug possession mid-trial and was sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony.

Viktor Bout, Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan (Getty/AP)

At a joint White House press conference with Mr Biden and Kamala Harris, Ms Griner’s wife Cherelle Griner said she was “overwhelmed with emotion”.

Viktor Bout, a former Soviet military officer, is serving a 25-year prison sentence at the US Penitentiary Marion, in Illinois, after being found guilty on charges of conspiring to kill Americans, acquire and export anti-aircraft missiles, and provide material support to a terrorist organisation. He maintains his innocence.

White House officials told CNN on Thursday that their Russian counterparts had refused to include Mr Whelan, a former US Marine who has spent four years in custody, in the deal.

Mr Whelan was arrested in 2018 on suspicion of spying and sentenced to 16 years hard time in a prison labour camp in 2020 on espionage charges. He strongly denies the charges.

“It was a choice to get Brittney or nothing,” a US official told CNN.

In a statement, his brother David Whelan welcomed Ms Griner’s release but said the family was “devastated” authorities hadn’t been able to secure his release.

2022: Paul Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko

US-Russian relations fell to their lowest level since the fall of the USSR after Vladimir Putin ordered Russian forces to invade Ukraine in February.

Former US Marine Trevor Reed was freed from a Russian prison in April as part of prisoner exchange (NBC News Now)

The outbreak of war marked a further downturn in fortunes for former US Marine Trevor Reed, 30, who had lobbied successive presidents for his release ever since he was arrested in 2019 and charged with assaulting two police officers while drunk in Moscow. Mr Reed was handed a nine-year jail sentence in 2020.

Despite rapidly deteriorating relations between the two countries however, a swap was arranged for convicted Russian drug trafficker Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison in the US in 2010.

After his release, Mr Reed told CNN he "wouldn’t let myself hope" for freedom during his 985 days of incarceration.

A Biden administration official told CNN the deal was the result of “months and months of hard careful work across the US government”.

2010: Sergei Skripal, the double agent, and Anna Chapman the sleeper spy

An FBI investigation uncovered the existence of a Russian sleeper cell operating in the US in 2010.

Anna Chapman pictured in New York prior to her arrest for spying in 2010 (AP)

The group of 10 agents had been planted in the US by the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service, and posed as ordinary citizens while trying to ingratiate their way into the lives of influential Americans and obtain state secrets.

The glamorous Anna Chapman, who had been posing as the CEO of a real estate firm, attracted most of the headlines.

After pleading guilty to failing to register as a foreign agent, the 10 were flown to Vienna before being transferred back to Russia in exchange for four nationals who had been imprisoned for helping spy on the motherland.

Military personnel in Salisbury investigate the poisoning of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in 2018 (PA)

Among them was Sergei Skripal, who in 2018 hit the headlines after he was poisoned along with his daughter Yulia with the nerve agent Novichok by two would-be Russian assassins in the English city of Salisbury.

The pair survived but Dawn Sturgess, a British national who accidentally came into contact with the nerve agent, later died, sparking a major international stand-off between the United Kingdom and Russia.

Chapman, who became a model and television presenter after returning to Russia, labelled Skripal a “traitor” after his poisoning.

Cold War: Bridge of Spies

In 1957, Soviet spy Rudolf Abel was arrested in New York and convicted of being part of a deep cover espionage operation. He had been posing as an artist and had a studio in Brooklyn.

Tom Hanks played James Donovan in the 2015 film about a dramatic Cold War prisoner swap (DreamWorks )

His appointed counsel James Donovan resisted attempts by the CIA to hand over their private communications, and appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court, citing illegal law enforcement tactics. It was narrowly defeated 5-4.

Mr Donovan, later played by Tom Hanks in the 2015 movie Bridge of Spies, helped Abel avoid the death penalty by convincing a judge he may be useful in a future prisoner swap, and he was instead sentenced to 30 years prison.

Mr Donovan faced harassment and abuse for his unwavering defence of the Russian spy.

In May 1960, American pilot Gary Powers, who had been flying a mission for the top secret CIA U-2 spy plane programme, was shot down over the Soviet Union.

Two years later, Mr Donovan was contacted by someone claiming to be Abel’s wife in East Germany.

At the direction of the CIA, Mr Donovan travelled to East Berlin as the Berlin Wall was being erected in 1962. He successfully negotiated the release of Mr Powers and a seond American prisoner Frederic Pryor, with the high-stakes swaps being carried out at Glienicke Bridge and Checkpoint Charlie.

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