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Swapping Viktor Bout for Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan: Did Moscow Already Get the Man It Wanted?

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When Secretary of State Antony Blinken this week said that Washington had offered to swap prisoners with Moscow, the deal seemed obvious. The U.S. would release Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for imprisoned Americans Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan. But Moscow, which previously has pressed for its arms dealer, has remained mostly silent this time about wanting to recover Bout.

Speculation about prisoner swaps emerged shortly after Whelan was arrested in Moscow on Dec. 28, 2018. Whelan, who was in town to attend a wedding, accepted a flash drive from a Russian friend. Prosecutors said that the device contained state secrets. Whelan was convicted of espionage, and was sentenced to 16 years hard labor, according to his twin brother, David.

Reports quickly surfaced that the Kremlin hoped to trade Whelan for Russian citizens Konstantin Yaroshenko and Viktor Bout, who at the time were incarcerated in the United States. 

Yaroshenko was being held for smuggling drugs. In a separate case, Bout, the so-called “merchant of death” international gunrunner, is serving a 25-year sentence on charges related to arms trafficking. Of the two Russians, Bout has been viewed as the bigger treasure. 

“The Russian government has fever dreams about trading something or someone for Viktor Bout,” David Whelan told me previously. “They have been talking about trying to get his release for years.”

The international legal community has noted those efforts.

“They want him back very badly,” said William Acosta, an international criminal defense investigator who has followed the case. 

Now, though, with Bout on offer, Moscow has remained silent regarding a trade.

“After all this time asking for Bout, they seem oddly unwilling to discuss it,” one U.S. official told me. “So you have to consider, something is missing from this picture.”

What’s the missing piece to the puzzle? Yaroshenko. The U.S. traded him in April in exchange for former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, who was jailed in Russia on charges of assaulting police.

“That may have changed the entire picture,” the official said. “Both present and past.”

Perhaps Moscow doesn’t need to trade Whelan or Griner because it already recovered the man it really wanted all along.

About Susan Katz Keating

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