For the first time since WNBA star Brittney Griner's arrest for drug possession in February, Russia has officially confirmed there are ongoing negotiations with the United States government regarding a potential prisoner swap. On Saturday, The Moscow Times reported Russia has officially acknowledged it seeks convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout to be a part of the deal.
"The discussions on the very sensitive topic of an exchange are proceeding via the channels chosen by our presidents," said Alexander Datchiev, head of the North America department at the Russian Foreign Ministry, according to the Russian state-owned news agency TASS. "Silent diplomacy continues and should bear fruit if Washington, of course, is careful not to fall into propaganda."
Bout, also known as "The Merchant of Death," was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then extradited to the United States. He was convicted of conspiring to kill Americans in 2011 and is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence.
Last week, Griner was found guilty on drug charges in Russia and was sentenced to nine years in prison. She has been in custody since her arrest on Feb. 17 at an airport near Moscow for having vape cartridges containing hashish oil -- a marijuana concentrate -- in her luggage. Her lawyers plan to appeal, but the United States government has also been trying to help.
After her sentencing, President Joe Biden told the media he was "hopeful" about the situation. In May, his administration declared Griner to be "wrongfully detained." Last month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed that the U.S. government has put a "substantial proposal on the table" for Griner's release, although no details on this proposal were given.
Although Russia confirmed this week that negotiations are underway, it didn't disclose any details on who would be involved in the swap. However, multiple outlets have reported Griner and corporate security director Paul Whelan would be part of a deal in exchange for Viktor Bout, a convicted arms dealer who is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S. Whelan is serving a 16-year prison sentence in Russia after being arrested in 2018 and convicted of spying in 2020. The Biden administration also considers Whelan to be "wrongfully detained."
While talks between Russia and the United States have been ongoing for months, Russian officials have preferred to not make their discussions public. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov have both said they prefer the discussions between the two countries to be private, only taking take place through an established communication channel that Biden and Vladimir Putin established in June 2021 when they met in Geneva.
"The U.S. already has made mistakes, trying to solve such problems via 'microphone diplomacy.' They are not solved that way," Peskov said earlier this month.
For a full explainer on Griner's situation, click here.