Washington (CNN) — After months of internal debate, the Biden administration has offered to trade Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year prison sentence in the US, as part of a possible deal to secure the release of two Americans held by Russia, Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, according to people with knowledge of the matter.
These sources tell CNN that the plan to trade Bout for Whelan and Griner received the endorsement of President Joe Biden after being under discussion since earlier this year. Biden’s support for the exchange overrides opposition from the Justice Department, which is generally against prisoner swaps.
“We communicated a substantial offer that we believe could be successful based on a history of talks with the Russians,” a senior administration official told CNN on Wednesday. “We communicated it several weeks ago, in June.”
The official declined to comment on the details of the “substantial offer.” They said it was “in Russia’s court to be receptive to it, but at the same time that doesn’t leave us passive as we continue to communicate the offer at very high levels.”
“It takes two to tango. We begin all negotiations to bring Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained home with a bad actor on the other side. We begin negotiations with someone who has taken an American human being and been treated as a bargaining chip,” the official said. “So, in a way, it’s not surprising, even if it’s discouraging, when those same actors don’t necessarily respond directly to our offers, they don’t engage constructively in the negotiations.”
Relatives of Whelan, held by Russia for alleged espionage since 2018, and basketball star Griner, jailed in Moscow for drug possession since February, have urged the White House to secure their release, including through a prisoner swap, from be necessary.
Griner, who pleaded guilty in early July but said he had inadvertently brought cannabis into Russia, testified Wednesday in a Russian court as part of his ongoing trial on drug charges, for which he faces up to 10 years. from prison It is understood that his trial will have to conclude before a deal is finalized, according to US officials familiar with the Russian court process and the inner workings of US-Russian negotiations.
During months of internal wrangling between US agencies, the Justice Department opposed negotiating with Bout’s exchange, people briefed on the matter say. However, Justice officials eventually accepted that the Bout trade has the support of top State Department and White House officials, including Biden himself, according to the sources.
The US government has long been averse to prisoner swaps, citing concerns that they only incentivize countries to detain Americans so they can be used as bargaining chips. Advocates have disputed these concerns, arguing that it is more important that Americans be able to return home.
Among top officials in the Biden administration, the idea of prisoner swaps gained new momentum earlier this year after the successful release of Trevor Reed, a former Marine held captive in Russia for more than two years. Reed was traded for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot then serving a 20-year federal prison sentence for cocaine smuggling conspiracy.
Biden officials were concerned that the decision to trade Reed for Yaroshenko would be criticized by Republicans. Instead, he drew bipartisan praise, including from a handful of Republicans who are normally strong critics of the administration. That reception, the sources say, prompted the administration to reexamine all options for getting Whelan and Griner out of Russia, including a possible prisoner swap.
“Regardless of the moral outrage of holding innocent people and trying to get someone like Mr. Yaroshenko out of us, which is the complete opposite, we are so committed to bringing our people home that we will make those painful decisions under certain circumstances,” the senior administration official told CNN.
Securing his release would also give the White House a much-needed political victory ahead of November’s midterm elections, a point some officials quietly acknowledged when speaking privately with CNN. There is also a sense of urgency to bring the two detainees home, as the White House faces increasing public scrutiny from families of Americans illegally detained abroad.
Biden recently spoke by phone with Griner’s wife, Cherelle, and Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth.