Russian officials said Thursday that negotiations had been taking place for an unspecified possible prisoner swap between the United States and Russia, but that a deal had not yet been reached. The statement followed questions over a CNN report of a U.S. offer to exchange American citizens detained in Russia, WNBA star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States.
When asked about the report, Russia’s foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said, “The issue of the mutual exchange of Russian and American citizens in places of detention on the territory of the two countries was once discussed by the presidents of Russia and the United States. They gave instructions to the relevant authorized structures to carry out negotiations… A concrete result has not yet been achieved.”
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, when asked about the potential swap, said Thursday that he didn’t discuss ongoing negotiations, but that “so far, there are no agreements in this area.”
Bout was sentenced in New York in 2012 on charges including “conspiracy to kill Americans,” and the Kremlin has long sought his release, at the time calling his sentence “baseless and biased.”
According to a 2010 60 Minutes report, Bout is originally from Tajikistan, which was formerly a Soviet republic, and reportedly served in the Soviet Air Force and intelligence service. During his trial, federal prosecutors alleged that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bout started providing stockpiled Cold War weapons to “bad guys” around the world.
Bout’s wife said Wednesday that Bout was not aware of a possible exchange, AFP reported.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken declined to confirm the report, but said the U.S. had put forward a “substantial proposal” to Russia aimed at securing the release of Griner and Whelan.
Blinken said he was planning to speak to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in the coming days, for the first time since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.
“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,” Blinken said. “We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release. Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal.”
Haley Ott is a digital reporter/producer for CBS News based in London.