Blinken says US made ‘substantial’ offer with Russia for prisoner exchange, may involve ‘Merchant of Death’

Secretary of State Antony Blinken claims that the US has made a “substantial proposal” to Russia in exchange for the release of detained basketball star Brittney Griner, as well as former Marine Paul Whelan, although he declined to say just what that offer entailed.

This new development was announced as Griner appeared in a Moscow court, where she said that she’d ignored a February travel advisory warning Americans not to travel to Russia so that she wouldn’t let her Russian teammates down. She was arrested at the Moscow airport on February 17, after a vape containing cannabis oil was discovered in her luggage—a serious crime in Russia, which permits no exceptions for the possession of marijuana or its derivatives.

It turned out to be a costly mistake for the 6-foot-9-inch basketball player, who is now at the center of a prickly international dustup that could lead to the freeing of a notorious Russian arms trafficker and an all-around bad guy who’s currently cooling his heels in an American prison.

Although Blinken was cagey about the details of the proposal, there is good reason to believe that the exchange would involve Viktor Bout, the aforesaid arms dealer, who is at this moment serving a 25-year prison sentence.

“In the coming days,” Blinken told reporters, “I expect to speak with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, for the first time since the war began. I plan to raise an issue that’s a top priority for us: the release of Americans Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner, who have been wrongfully detained, and must be allowed to come home. We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago, to facilitate their release. Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal. I’ll use the conversation to follow up personally, and I hope, move us toward a resolution.”

Blinken’s statement indicated that Paul Whelan, who was detained in Moscow in 2018 on espionage charges and sentenced to 16 years in 2020, would also be part of any prisoner exchange. Griner, meanwhile, recently appeared in a Russian court, where she explained why she traveled to Russia in the midst of its military buildup prior to invading Ukraine, and despite serious warnings from the State Department advising Americans to stay away from the country.

“It’s the most important part of the season, after the break,” she said. “It’s playoffs. The whole season I worked, my team worked hard to get to a good position. 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,” Griner added, “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 also explained that the reason she had the marijuana was in order to treat the pain of sports-related 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.”

“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 continued and admitted that she’d accidentally included the vape while rushing to pack her bags.

“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,” she testified.

The release of Viktor Bout would be a major win for the Russians. The 55-year-old former Soviet military officer, known as the “Merchant of Death,” has inspired countless Hollywood villains in just about every James Bond and Mission Impossible film of the past two decades.

Bout was convicted in the US of illegally selling thousands of guns, hundreds of surface-to-air missiles, and an assortment of high-tech planes and helicopters to a number of bad actors, including the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Liberian strongman Charles Taylor, and even the Taliban (though the US Government, under the Biden administration, has since taken over as by far the largest arms supplier to that organization.)

For the time being, the families of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan eagerly await the outcome of this latest round of negotiations.


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