WASHINGTON — The Biden administration has offered to free the imprisoned Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout to secure the release of Brittney Griner and Paul N. Whelan, two Americans imprisoned in Russia who the State Department says were wrongfully detained, according to a person familiar with the negotiations.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Wednesday that the United States had “put a substantial proposal on the table” and that he would soon press for the Americans’ return in his first conversation with his Russian counterpart since Russia invaded Ukraine five months ago.
Mr. Blinken’s comments represented the first time that the United States had confirmed that it had made a formal proposal to persuade Russia to release Ms. Griner, an American basketball star who has been detained for months on drug charges, and Mr. Whelan, a former US Marine who was sentenced in Russia in 2020 to 16 years in prison on espionage charges.
The notion of trading Ms. Griner for Mr. Bout surfaced in Russian news media several weeks ago. US officials would not publicly discuss the idea at the time and stressed their concern about potentially incentivizing the detention of Americans abroad by foreign actors looking to win concessions.
On Wednesday, however, Mr. Blinken said the two countries had “communicated repeatedly and directly” about the proposal, although he would not provide details or describe the Russian response, saying he did not want to endanger sensitive negotiations with Moscow.
The person briefed on the conversations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic negotiations, said the United States offered in June to trade Mr. Bout for Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan, and that President Biden — who has been under growing political pressure to free the Americans — backed the offer. The offer was first reported by CNN.
Mr. Bout, who is known as the “Merchant of Death,” is serving a 25-year federal prison sentence for conspiring to sell weapons to people who said they planned to kill Americans. The Kremlin has demanded his release for years.
Speaking at the State Department, Mr. Blinken said he expected to talk with Sergey V. Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, in the coming days and would urge him to accept the proposal. The two men last spoke in January at a meeting in Geneva, weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 led to a near-total shutdown of American diplomacy with Russia. Mr. Blinken avoided so much as shaking Mr. Lavrov’s hand at a Group of 20 foreign ministers meeting in Bali earlier this month.
Mr. Biden has been under pressure to secure the freedom of Ms. Griner in particular, whose wife, Cherelle, and several Democratic-aligned political groups have publicly urged him to strike a deal to win her release. Mr. Biden spoke to Cherelle Griner this month.
In mid-July, WNBA players took the court at their All-Star Game wearing jerseys bearing Ms. Griner’s number, 42. And on Tuesday, NBC News aired an interview with Trevor Reed, a former US Marine freed from a Russian prison in April after three years of detention, in which he said the White House was “not doing enough” to free Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan.
William J. Burns, the CIA director, addressed talk of a potential prisoner swap during an appearance at the Aspen Security Forum last week.
“These are awful and shameful steps to hold American citizens for political leverage,” Mr. Burns said. “The Russians are quite cold-blooded about this right now.”
What to Know About Brittney Griner’s Detention in Russia
Mr. Burns said it was unclear why the Kremlin has long been determined to secure the release of Mr. Bout, 55, a former Soviet military officer who made a fortune in global arms trafficking before he was caught in a federal sting operation.
“That is a good question because Viktor Bout is a creep,” Mr. Burns said. Some analysts believe that Mr. Bout enjoys loyalty from former criminal associates with continued influence at the Kremlin.
In 2010, Mr. Bout agreed to sell arms to undercover US federal agents who said they belonged to Colombia’s FARC rebel group, which the United States classified at the time as a terrorist organization. Prosecutors said Mr. Bout did not object when the agents said they intended to use the weapons to kill American troops supporting Colombia’s military.
In an interview last month, however, the judge who sentenced Mr. Bout, Shira A. Scheindlin, said that Mr. Bout “was not a terrorist, in my opinion. He was a businessman.” She added that she felt the mandatory 25-year sentence she was forced to impose was too high and that a trade of Mr. Bout for Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan would be reasonable.
A White House national security spokesman, John F. Kirby, declined to provide more specifics about the US proposal.
“I’m sure you can all understand that it’s not going to help us get them home if we’re negotiating publicly,” Mr. Kirby told reporters. But he seemed to welcome the opportunity to say something beyond months of past official assurances that the administration was working quietly behind the scenes.
“What I will say is that the president and his team are willing to take extraordinary steps to bring our people home,” Mr. Kirby said. “We believe it’s important for the American people to know how hard President Biden is working to get Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan home. We think it’s important for their families to know how hard we’re working on this.”
A senior administration official said Justice Department lawyers, who have long argued against releasing Mr. Bout, part of an institutional reluctance to trade away federal prisoners, voiced initial opposition to the deal but were overruled by Mr. Biden.
Mr. Blinken disclosed the existence of the proposal hours after Ms. Griner testified for the first time about her arrest, telling a Russian courtroom that she had been tossed into a bewildering legal system with little explanation of what was happening and what she might do to try to defend herself.
Ms. Griner described arriving in Russia after an exhausting 13-hour flight — soon after recovering from Covid — and finding herself in an interrogation in which much of what was being said remained untranslated. She said she was told to sign papers with no explanation of what they were.
Her case has taken on external importance amid the lowest point in relations between Russia and the United States since the end of the Cold War. She arrived for the hearing with her wrists shackled in front of her, and flanked by Russian security agents, including some wearing bulletproof vests, their faces covered by balaclavas.
She has been accused by the Russian authorities of having two vape cartridges of hashish oil in her luggage when she arrived at an airport near Moscow. Russia did not make her detention public until after it invaded Ukraine.
Ms. Griner, 31, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who plays for the Phoenix Mercury, had been traveling to Russia to play with a team in Yekaterinburg, about 900 miles east of Moscow, during the WNBA off-season.
In court on Wednesday, Ms. Griner, testifying from an enclosed witness box, said she had been pulled aside during a luggage check in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, according to her lawyer, Aleksandr Boikov.
Ms. Griner “was surprised” that vape cartridges appeared in her luggage and that the interpreter she provided translated “almost nothing,” Mr. Boikov said. A lawyer came to help after 16 hours of detention, he said.
Ms. Griner “explained to the court that she knows and respects Russian laws and never intended to break them,” another one of her lawyers, Maria Blagovolina, said in a statement.
“Brittney confirmed that she had a doctor’s prescription for the use of medical cannabis and that in the USA medical cannabis is quite a popular treatment among professional athletes,” Ms. Blagovolina said. “She emphasized that she never planned to bring it to Russia and use it.”
Although Ms. Griner has already entered a guilty plea, the trial is expected to continue into August, her lawyers said. She faces a possible 10-year sentence. Her lawyers hope that her plea will make the court more lenient.
Mr. Whelan, 52, a former Marine and corporate security executive, was detained at a Moscow hotel in late 2018 and charged with espionage. The State Department has classified him and Ms. Griner as “wrongfully detained” and has referred their cases to a special hostage affairs office.
Ms. Griner’s Russian legal defense team said it had learned about the American offer from the news and that it had not been participating in the discussions. From a legal perspective, the prisoner exchange is possible only after the court reaches a verdict, the lawyers said.
In a statement, Mr. Whelan’s brother, David, said the family was just hearing about the US proposal but “appreciates” the administration’s efforts and hopes the Kremlin “accepts this or some other concession that enables Paul to come home to his family.”
A lawyer for Mr. Bout, Steve Zissou, declined to comment.
Mr. Blinken said the United States was trying to balance the imperatives of freeing wrongfully detained prisoners around the world, while “we work to reinforce the global norm against these arbitrary detentions, against what is truly a horrific practice.”
Critics say that prisoner swaps encourage foreign governments and terrorist groups to arrest and kidnap Americans.
But the United States did make a trade with Moscow in April, sending home a convicted Russian drug smuggler in exchange for Mr. Reed, who was arrested on charges of assaulting two police officers. Biden administration officials suggested at the time that the trade was an exceptional case.
Russian officials had for years — including during discussions about Mr. Reed’s release — led American negotiators to believe they would welcome a trade such as the one now on the table, according to a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
American officials at multiple levels have repeatedly pressed for a response from Russians, the American official said, but to no avail.
The official said the decision to go public with the offer was partly an effort to dislodge the Russians, hoping that public pressure might produce a Kremlin response.
The senior official said that the White House contacted Elizabeth Whelan, Mr. Whelan’s sister, about the proposal, and that she received it very positively. The White House was unable to reach Cherelle Griner because she was taking the bar exam on Wednesday, the administration official said.
Mr. Blinken said he would also press Mr. Lavrov to make good on a deal struck last week between Russia and Ukraine to unblock millions of tons of Ukrainian grain and other agricultural exports to alleviate a worsening global food crisis.
US officials have been skeptical that Russia will follow through and open Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. On Saturday, a string of explosions rocked the Ukrainian port of Odesa, threatening to undermine the grain agreement.
“There’s a difference between a deal on paper and a deal in practice,” Mr. Blinken said.
Michael Crowley and Julian Barnes reported from Washington, and Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia. Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Michael D. Shear contributed reporting from Washington, and Carly Olson and Michael Levenson from New York.