Former US ambassador to Russia agrees with idea of Brittney Griner prisoner swap deal

‘Ten more years of Victor Bout in jail versus those three Americans staying in jail for a decade, I would take that trade,’ says former US envoy

Oliver O'Connell
New York
Wednesday 06 July 2022 00:18 BST
Brittney Griner's wife says she will not be quiet any more

Former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul appeared on MSNBC on Tuesday to discuss Brittney Griner’s letter urging action from President Biden to get her and other Americans detained in Russia back home.

“This is not a terrorist organisation. This is a government, and they should consider this swap. Not just Brittney Griner, as she rightly writes in her letter, but also Paul Whelan and Mark Fogel, another American wrongly detained in Russia,” Mr McFaul told Andrea Mitchell.

It has been floated that international arms dealer Viktor Bout, currently detained by the US, could be traded for the three Americans.

“Ten more years of Victor Bout in jail versus those three Americans staying in jail for a decade, I would take that trade,” adds Mr McFaul, who served in the Obama administration for five years, including two as the US ambassador to Moscow.

WNBA star and Olympian Ms Griner was detained by Russian customs officials at Sheremetyevo International Airport in February after security services officers reportedly found vaporiser pods containing hash oil in her luggage. Her wife Cherelle has alleged that the Biden administration has not given her situation the attention it deserves due to Ms Griner’s gender, race, and status as an LGBT+ person.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Tuesday said the case of the US olympian’s continued detention in Russia is “a priority” for Joe Biden and his administration after a letter from the basketball player to the president was made public by her family.

“This is an issue that is a priority for this President,” said Ms Jean-Pierre, who noted that the US has classified Ms Griner as being “wrongfully detained” by the Russian government.

Ms Griner’s supporters have encouraged US authorities to negotiate a prisoner swap like the one in April that brought home Marine veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for a Russian pilot convicted of drug trafficking conspiracy.

Russian news media have repeatedly raised speculation that she could be swapped for arms trader Bout, nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” who is serving a 25-year sentence on conviction of conspiracy to kill US citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organisation.

Russia has agitated for Bout’s release for years. But the wide discrepancy between Ms Griner’s case — which involves alleged possession of vape cartridges containing cannabis oil — and Bout’s global dealings in deadly weapons could make such a swap unpalatable to the US.

Others have suggested that she could be traded in tandem with Mr Whelan, a former Marine and security director serving a 16-year sentence on an espionage conviction that the US has repeatedly described as a setup.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, when asked on Sunday on CNN whether a joint swap of Ms Griner and Mr Whelan for Bout was being considered, sidestepped the question.

“As a general proposition ... I have got no higher priority than making sure that Americans who are being illegally detained in one way or another around the world come home,” he said. But he said he could not comment “in any detail on what we’re doing, except to say this is an absolute priority.”

With additional reporting by The Associated Press

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