“People briefed on the matter” tell CNN that the president approved the proposal back in June, about four months after Griner was arrested at a Russian airport on contraband charges. The U.S. allegedly asked Russia to release the WNBA star and imprisoned American Paul Whelan in exchange for Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms dealer who is currently locked up in the U.S.
“We communicated a substantial offer that we believe could be successful based on a history of conversations with the Russians. … 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,” a senior Biden administration official told CNN. “We start all of these with somebody who has taken a human being American and treated them as a bargaining chip. 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.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed he plans to make the offer during a requested call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov later this week. Insiders tell the Associated Press that Griner and Whelan’s release will be the reason behind the call, though Blinken plans to address other issues. If the call is granted, it’ll mark the first conversation between Blinken and Lavrov since mid-February, just days before Russia invaded Ukraine.
Griner was arrested on Feb. 17 at Sheremetyevo International Airport, after a search of her luggage yielded vape cartridges with hash oil. The 31-year-old athlete pleaded guilty to the drug charges, but insisted she mistakenly packed the contraband because she had packed her bag in a hurry.
“I’d like to plead guilty, your honor. But there was no intent,” Griner told a Russian court earlier this month. “I didn’t want to break the law.”
Griner is now facing up to 10 years in prison.
Whelan, a U.S. citizen and former Marine, was arrested in Russia in 2018 for alleged espionage. The 52-year-old was convicted in 2020, and received a 16-year sentence.
Though the U.S. has historically opposed prisoner swaps, it recently agreed to release Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko in exchange for former Marine Trevor Reed. Yaroshenko was arrested by U.S. authorities more than a decade ago and sentenced to 20 years for drug-smuggling charges. Reed was released from a Russian penal colony back in April, about three years after he was convicted of assaulting police officers in Moscow.