Russia for the first time appears to be intentionally signaling Washington concerning WNBA star and Olympic champion Brittney Griner, who has been held in Russian detention since her arrest at a Moscow airport three months ago on drug charges (based on customs agents saying they found vape cartridges containing hashish oil as she arrived from New York).
It seems the Kremlin may be ready to negotiate another prisoner exchange, following the late April release of US citizen and former Marine Trevor Reed, which in return saw Russian citizen Konstantin Yaroshenko freed from US custody. Yaroshenko a Russian civilian pilot who had been serving a 20-year sentence in the US on drug smuggling charges.
Multiple Russian state-run outlets on Friday cited "unnamed government sources" which said Moscow is looking to see Washington hand over a notorious arms trafficker named Viktor Bout. Gazeta.Ru was the first to claim that negotiations between the two sides have already started, though no US government sources are confirming this.
"Currently, talks are underway on exchanging Bout for Griner," a source was cited in the reports as saying. " And TASS wrote: "Russian entrepreneur Viktor Bout who was sentenced in the US for arms sales may be traded for American basketball player Brittney Griner who is accused in Russia of drug trafficking, a source in the Public Monitoring Commission confirmed to TASS on Friday."
"Earlier, a source of the Gazeta.Ru news outlet reported that a process preparing for such an exchange had started," the report continued, citing the successful Trevor Reed deal.
But who is Viktor Bout? Yahoo News describes the high-profile case which saw US agents travel across the globe to nab him over a decade ago as follows:
Bout, whose exploits earned him the nickname the “Merchant of Death,” flooded fierce conflicts in Africa and the Middle East with weapons, U.S. authorities say. He was arrested during a sting operation in Thailand in 2008, extradited to the U.S. and sentenced to 25 years for conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens, delivery of anti-aircraft missiles and providing aid to a terrorist organization.
US officials previously alleged continuous Russian attempt to thwart his extradition:
After Bout’s arrest, the U.S. alleged that his Russian allies tried to block his extradition from Thailand to America by bribing key witnesses to give false testimony. Since his 2012 conviction, Bout has been at the top of Russia’s prisoner exchange wish list and has been linked repeatedly in the Russian state media with potential swaps involving jailed Americans that haven’t come to fruition.
Currently there's speculation that a Wednesday visit of US ambassador to Russia John Sullivan to Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow may have included a Griner-for-Bout deal as a central topic of discussion.
This week Griner appeared in a courtroom outside of Moscow and was photographed for the first time. Her request to be placed under house arrest was rejected, and her detention extended by 30 days.
Russia wants arms dealer Viktor Bout exchanged for US basketball player Brittney Griner.— Sentletse 🇷🇺🇿🇦 (@Sentletse) May 13, 2022
Bout is jail in the US for arms smuggling. Hollywood made a movie about his exploits, Lord of War, starring Nicholas Cage.
Griger was convicted of drug smuggling in Russia. pic.twitter.com/eXNvY4gaEb
The 2005 film Lord of War was largely based on Bout's exploits...
"The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is among the highest priorities of the U.S government," a State Dept. statement indicated eariler. "The Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained US citizen Brittney Griner." It explained: "With this determination, the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens will lead the interagency team for securing Brittney Griner’s release." The statement was issued after the US declared here status as "wrongfully detained" abroad.
Whether or not the substantial rumors that talks for a prisoner swap involving Griner are accurate, it's clear that the Russians are at the very least signaling hard via this flurry of state media reports.