US offers Russia 'substantial' deal for return of Brittney Griner, Paul Whelan

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — President Joe Biden's administration in recent weeks made a "substantial proposal" to Russia in an attempt to bring home two Americans jailed there — Michigan's Paul Whelan and WNBA star Brittney Griner, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday.

Blinken also said he had requested to speak with his Kremlin counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, for the first time since before Russia invaded Ukraine five months ago, in part to seek an answer to the offer.

The U.S. government hasn't previously publicized any actions or offers it has made to get Russia to release Griner or Whelan, who has been in custody in Russia for 3.5 years and is serving a 16-year sentence of hard labor. Griner's arrest on drug charges dates to February, and her trial is ongoing. 

Blinken indicated that Biden was directly involved in the decision and signed off on the proposed offer, which CNN reported is a swap of Whelan and Griner for convicted arms smuggler Viktor Bout.

"I can't and won't get into any of the details of what we've proposed to the Russians over the course of so many weeks now," Blinken said. 

"We've conveyed this on a number of occasions and directly to Russian officials. And my hope would be that in speaking to Foreign Minister Lavrov, I can advance the efforts to bring them home."

Paul Whelan, a former US marine accused of espionage and arrested in Russia in December 2018, stands inside a defendants' cage as he waits to hear his verdict in Moscow on June 15, 2020. The Biden administration has publicized an offer to try to free Whelan and WNBA star Brittney Griner.

More: WNBA’s Griner says poor translation clouded arrest in Russia

In response to the news Wednesday, Whelan's family said it appreciated the Biden administration seeking the release of Paul, a former security executive from Novi.

"We hope the Russian government responds to the U.S. government and accepts this or some other concession that enables Paul to come home to his family," Whelan's brother, David, said in a statement. "The sooner the better."

David Whelan noted that Paul has let their parents in Manchester, Michigan, know that about 10 prisoners have left his prison camp in Mordovia to go and serve on the front lines of the war in Ukraine.

"Hopefully, the Russian military sticks to volunteers and not press gangs," David Whelan said. 

Paul Whelan, 52, has been held since his arrest at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 and later conviction on espionage charges that he's vehemently denied. U.S. officials and lawmakers have labeled his detention "wrongful" and pressed for his release.

Earlier this month, Biden phoned Whelan's sister, Elizabeth, saying he was committed to getting the Michigan man released "as soon as possible."

Russian officials have long sought the release of Bout, who is serving a 25-year sentence in a U.S. prison, but multiple reports have suggested that the U.S. Department of Justice has been opposed to Bout being part of a prisoner swap. 

The Russians recently agreed to a separate prisoner swap in the spring, leading to the release of another American, Trevor Reed, who, like Whelan, is a former U.S. Marine who had traveled to Russia as a tourist. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at a news conference, Wednesday, July 27, 2022 at the State Department in Washington.

"We, of course, want to see those who are wrongfully detained be released and be able to return home. At the same time, it's important that we work to reinforce the global norm against these arbitrary detentions, against what is truly a horrific practice," Blinken said Wednesday.

"So we're working concertedly on both. We've demonstrated with Trevor Reed, who came home a few months ago, that the president is prepared to make tough decisions if it means the safe return of Americans."

Biden's secretary of state declined to characterize the Russians' response to the offer, so far.

"Again, my interest and my focus is on making sure that, to the best of our ability, we get to yes," Blinken said.  

"We were very focused on getting Brittany and Paul home. At the same time, I'm also focused every single day on arbitrarily detained Americans and more than half a dozen countries around the world." 

At the White House, National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby confirmed the U.S. has made a "substantial offer" to bring Whelan and Griner home, but declined to provide more during a Wednesday press briefing. 

"It's not going to help us get them home if we're negotiating in public with y'all," Kirby said Wednesday. "The president and his team are willing to take extraordinary steps to bring our people home. ... That's what we're doing right here."

Kirby said the offer was made several weeks ago and "we certainly hope that Russia will favorably engage on it."

"There's a lot of reasons" why Blinken decided to make the offer public Wednesday, said Kirby, declining to say more. 

"Making it clear that there is an actual proposal made, that there is something tangible on the table, is important context for the world to know," he said. 

Kirby added that Deputy Homeland Security Adviser Josh Geltzer reached out to both the Whelan and Griner families before Blinken announced the offer and plans to try talk to them again Wednesday and Thursday.

He said the administration has had "constant contact" with the families amid the negotiations. 

Should Blinken and Lavrov speak, it would be the first conversation that they have had since Feb. 15, about a week before Russia invaded Ukraine. Blinken said he would also be speaking to Lavrov about the importance of Russia complying with a deal secured by the United Nations to release multiple tons of Ukrainian grain from storage.

Griner has acknowledged in court that she had vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage when she arrived in Moscow in February but has argued she had no criminal intent and packed the cartridges inadvertently.

At her trial Wednesday, Griner said she did not know how the cannabis oil ended up in her bag but explained she had a doctor’s recommendation for it and had packed in haste. She said she was pulled aside at the airport after inspectors found the cartridges, but that a language interpreter translated only a fraction of what was said during her questioning and that officials instructed her to sign documents without providing an explanation.

Griner faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of transporting drugs.

The U.S. government has long resisted prisoner swaps out of concern that it could encourage more hostage-taking by foreign actors and promote false equivalency between a wrongfully detained American and a foreign national regarded as justly convicted. Some presidents also feared political blowback.

"I think we've proven that that is not the case here with Trevor's release," Reed family spokesman Jonathan Franks said in May, noting the lack of criticism from Capitol Hill. 

Melvyn Levitsky, a professor of international policy at the University of Michigan, said the proposed deal would be worthwhile if the Russians guarantee that Bout, dubbed the Merchant of Death, will be retired and won’t re-engage actively in the arms business as before.

“Two for one. However, you have pointed out the downside: We arrest for legitimate reasons, and they arrest an innocent American on trumped-up charges,” said Levitsky, a former diplomat who spent three years in Moscow during the Cold War.

“Besides, it's not just Russia, but other hostile countries that could do the same. In this case, Griner has become a cause celebre here, and though it wasn't smart of her to bring hash oil into any country, least of all Russia, my guess is that the deal will be made.”

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner holds images standing in a cage at a court room prior to a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 27, 2022.

There was no indication that Blinken and Lavrov had communicated to secure Reed’s release earlier this year. Their last publicly recognized contact was Feb. 22, when Blinken wrote to Lavrov to cancel a meeting they had planned as a last-ditch effort to avert the Russian invasion, saying Moscow had shown no interest in serious diplomacy on the matter.

The two last met in person in Geneva in January to discuss what was then Russia’s massive military build-up along Ukraine’s border and Russian demands for NATO to reduce its presence in eastern Europe and permanently deny Ukraine membership. The U.S. rejected the Russian demands.

Blinken and Lavrov avoided each other earlier this month at the next time they were in the same place at the same time: at a meeting of foreign ministers from the Group of 20 nations in Bali, Indonesia.

Detroit News Washington correspondent Riley Beggin and Associated Press contributed.