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.
Speaking at a press conference at the State Department, Blinken said Biden was “directly involved” and signed off on the proposal. Although Blinken did not directly confirm Bout was part of the deal, saying he “can’t and won’t get into any of the details of what we proposed to the Russians over the course of so many weeks now,” he said “in terms of the President, of course he was not only directly involved, he signs off on any proposal that we make, and certainly when it comes to Americans who are being arbitrarily detained abroad, including in this specific case.”
The top US diplomat said he intended to discuss the matter on an expected call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov this week – his first conversation with his counterpart since the war in Ukraine began – telling reporters, “my hope would be that in speaking to Foreign Minister Lavrov, I can advance the efforts to bring them home.”