America has made a ‘substantial’ offer to Russia to free basketball star Brittney Griner, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday.
Blinken spoke as Griner told a Moscow court that she’d ignored a travel advisory not to travel to Russia in February because she didn’t want to let her Russian teammates down.
The lawmaker declined to say what the United States was offering in return for the release of both Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan, who’s been in jail for spying since 2018.
But Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the National Security Council John Kirby confirmed a CNN report that Washington was willing to exchange Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25 year-prison sentence in the United States, as part of a deal.
Blinken confirmed the deal also included freeing former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who was arrested in Moscow in 2018 on espionage charges, and sentenced to 16 years in Russian prison in 2020.
‘There was a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release. Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal,’ Blinken told reporters, ‘And I’ll use the conversation to follow up personally and I hope move us toward a resolution.’
WNBA star Brittney Griner arriving at a hearing in Moscow on July 27. In court she said she overlooked the United States’ travel advisory and flew to Russia in February because she didn’t want to let her team down
Former US Marine Paul Whelan behind bars while waiting for a hearing after his arrest in Moscow in 2018
Griner, a US citizen who has played for a Russian basketball team in the WNBA off-season since 2015, was arrested at a Moscow airport on February 17 when a vape contained hashish cannabis oil was found in her bag.
Cannabis is illegal in Russia, with no exceptions made for medicinal treatment.
Speaking in a Russian courtroom on Wednesday, Griner explained why she flew to Russia despite the travel advisory the US issued against the country during its build-up to the invasion of Ukraine – which began six days after her arrest.
She has previously admitted drug charges, with the ongoing trial now set to decide what sentence she should face.
‘It’s the most important part of the season, after the break. It’s playoffs. The whole season I worked, my team worked hard to get to a good position,’ Griner said, ‘There was nothing that was going to change that for me. I didn’t want to let my team down.’
‘I did know about the ‘do not fly’ advisory, but like I said, there was nothing that was going to change my mind on coming back and finishing my duty for my team,’ she continued.
Speaking in a Russian courtroom on Wednesday, Griner explained why she flew to Russia despite the travel advisory the US issued against the country during its build-up to the invasion of Ukraine – which began six days after her arrest
Griner, a US citizen who has played for a Russian basketball team in the WNBA off-season since 2015, was arrested at a Moscow airport on February 17 when a vape contained hashish cannabis oil was found in her bag
Griner also explained why she had the marijuana with her, saying she used it as a side-effect free way of soothing years of sports-injuries.
‘Because of my injuries that I’ve had over the long career of basketball. From my spine, no cartilage in my knee. I was in a wheelchair for four months. I broke my ankle and I also sprained my knee really bad. So I was wheelchair-bound,’ she testified.
‘The benefits from medical cannabis definitely outweigh the painkillers that they prescribe. The painkillers have really bad side effects. Medical cannabis, there are honestly no side effects that harm you.’
She said she had packed the vape in her bag by accident as she was rushing to pack.
‘I was recovering from COVID, the stress of packing, making sure I had my COVID tests. Jet lag. And I was in a rush, throwing my stuff into my bag.’
News of the offer comes as the Biden administration has faced mounting pressure from Griner’s and Whelan’s families amidst fears that Russia would use the Americans as leverage to lessen sanctions imposed over its brutal invasion of Ukraine.
‘It’s not going to help us get them home if we’re negotiating in public with you all,’ Kirby told reporters after announcing the offer to release Bout in return for Griner and Whelan.
Nor would he respond directly when asked if Russia had responded directly to the offer.
‘I don’t want to get into the details of negotiation,’ Kirby said.
Bout, who has been dubbed the Merchant of Death and was the inspiration for Nicolas Cage’s character in the 2005 film Lord of War, is behind bars on arms trafficking charges.
The former Soviet officer, 55, illegally sold 700 surface-to-air missiles, thousands of guns, high-tech helicopters and planes fitted with grenade launches and counted the Taliban, Muammar Gaddafi and Liberian dictator Charles Taylor as his clients.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken (above) said the US made a ‘substantial offer’ to Russia to free Brittney Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan
Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the National Security Council John Kirby (above) confirmed a CNN report that Washington was willing to exchange Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25 year-prison sentence in the United States, as part of a deal
Griner’s trial began on July 1, and she plead guilty to drug charges on July 7 while saying she had no criminal intent.
‘I’d like to plead guilty, your honor. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,’ she said during her plea.
Her defense team is hoping for a lenient sentence, although she could face years in prison.
Whelan’s family has been pushing for top officials to secure his release for years. The pressure only increased after the administration was able to secure the release of another Marine veteran, Trevor Reed, in another swap with Russia in April.
Bout is pictured sitting in a Bangkok, Thailand, jail in 2009 after he was arrested in a sting by U.S. agents pretending to be Colombian FARC agents
Bout inspired Nicolas Cage’s character, arms dealer Yuri Orlov, in the 2005 film Lord of War
Bout, 55, is a former translator for the Soviet military who is serving out his sentence in Illinois after being convicted of conspiring to kill Americans and illegally selling weapons to Colombia’s FARC, as the Washington Post reported.
He was nabbed by authorities in Thailand in 2011 after a sting operation, but his arrest and conviction has long aggravated Moscow.
‘Today, one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers is being held accountable for his sordid past,’ former Attorney General Eric Holder said following Bout’s arrest in 2011.
His infamous list of alleged clients were Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Charles Taylor in Libya, and firms close to him helped arm the Taliban, according to the LA Times.
The diplomatic wrangling has all come with Russia’s brutal war on Ukraine as a backdrop, while officials still try to keep lines open on issues ranging from military deconfliction to efforts to get grain out of Ukraine amid the war.
The administration has frequently questioned Russia’s trustworthiness as a negotiating partner, even while trying to secure the release of detained Americans.
Days ago a series of explosions hit the Ukrainian port city of Odessa hours after Russia and Ukraine inked a deal to allow grain shipments through the Black Sea.
Blinken said afterwards that it cast ‘serious doubt on the credibility of Russia’s commitment to yesterday’s deal’ on grain shipments.