After months of internal debate, the Biden administration has offered to exchange Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms trafficker serving a 25-year US prison sentence, as part of a potential deal to secure the release of two Americans held by Russia, Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, according to people briefed on the matter.
These sources told CNN that the plan to trade Bout for Whelan and Griner received the backing of President Joe Biden after being under discussion since earlier this year. Biden's support for the swap overrides opposition from the Department of Justice, which is generally against prisoner trades.
"We communicated a substantial offer that we believe could be successful based on a history of conversations with the Russians," a senior administration official told CNN Wednesday. "We communicated that a number of weeks ago, in June."
The official declined to comment on the specifics of the "substantial offer." They said it was in Russia's "court to be responsive to it, yet at the same time that does not leave us passive, as we continue to communicate the offer at very senior levels."
"It takes two to tango. We start all negotiations to bring home Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained with a bad actor on the other side. We start all of these with somebody who has taken a human being American and treated them as a bargaining chip," the official said. "So in some ways, it's not surprising, even if it's disheartening, when those same actors don't necessarily respond directly to our offers, don't engage constructively in negotiations."
The families of Whelan, who has been held by Russia for alleged espionage since 2018, and WNBA star Griner, jailed in Moscow for drug possession since February, have urged the White House to secure their release, including via a prisoner exchange if necessary.
In response to CNN reporting, David Whelan, the brother of imprisoned Paul Whelan, said he appreciates the Biden administration.
“Our family appreciates the Biden Administration seeking Paul's release using the resources it has available. 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. Hopefully no other American will be wrongfully held by the Russian government in the future," Whelan said in a statement to CNN.
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