While Russia is outwardly considering a prisoner swap to send American basketball star Brittney Griner back to the United States, the State Department is tamping down expectations, saying they have yet to receive a ‘a substantial offer.’
US officials were hopeful that Russia would be more inclined to engage on prisoner swap talks after the November 8 midterms, but now say that optimism was misguided.
‘We are not going to comment on the specifics of any proposals other than to say that we have made a substantial offer that the Russian Federation has consistently failed to negotiate in good faith,’ read a State Department statement.
‘The US Government has continued to follow up on that offer and propose alternative potential ways forward with the Russian government,’ the statement continued. ‘The Russian government’s failure to seriously negotiate on these issues in the established channel, or any other channel for that matter runs counter to its public statements.’
Russia said on Friday it hoped to clinch a prisoner swap with the United States to return convicted Russian weapons trafficker Viktor Bout, known as the ‘Merchant of Death’, in an exchange that would likely include US basketball star Brittney Griner.
While Russia is outwardly considering a prisoner swap to send American basketball star Brittney Griner back to the United States, the State Department is tamping down expectations, saying they have yet to receive a ‘a substantial offer’
: Alleged arms smuggler Viktor Bout from Russia is escorted by a member of the special police unit as he arrives at a criminal court in Bangkok October 4, 2010
Amid the deadliest war in Europe since World War Two, Russia and the United States are exploring a deal that could see imprisoned Americans including Griner return to the United States in exchange for Bout.
‘I want to hope that the prospect not only remains but is being strengthened, and that the moment will come when we will get a concrete agreement,’ Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying by Interfax.
‘The Americans are showing some external activity, we are working professionally through a special channel designed for this,’ Ryabkov said. ‘Viktor Bout is among those who are being discussed, and we certainly count on a positive result.’
Griner has been transferred to a penal colony in the Mordovia region, southeast of Moscow, her lawyers said on Thursday.
At her trial, Griner – who played basketball for a Russian team in the US off-season – said she had used cannabis for relief from sports injuries but had not meant to break the law. She told the court she made an honest mistake by packing the cartridges in her luggage.
Griner was sentenced in August following her February arrest at an airport in Moscow, when Russian authorities say she was caught entering the country with vape cartridges containing cannabis oil. She had been at a detention center near Moscow until November 4, when she was moved to an undisclosed prison.
It has been two weeks since any information about her whereabouts have surfaced.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov (pictured) was quoted as saying: ‘Viktor Bout is among those who are being discussed, and we certainly count on a positive result’
Griner has been moved to IK-2 in Yavas, one of several penal colonies in the region, according to Reuters
For the two former Cold War foes, now grappling with the gravest confrontation since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the exchange would mark one of the more extraordinary prisoner swaps in their history.
The distinctly upbeat remarks from Ryabkov, the foreign ministry’s point man for the Americas and arms control, contrast with previous statements from Moscow which have cautioned Washington against trying to engage in megaphone diplomacy over the prisoner swap.
The possible swap includes Griner, facing nine years behind bars in Russia after being convicted on drug charges, and Paul Whelan who is serving a 16-year sentence in Russia after being convicted of espionage charges that he denies.
Russia and the United States have discussed swapping Griner and Whelan, a former US Marine, for Bout, but no deal has materialized amid heightened tensions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Variously dubbed ‘the merchant of death’ and ‘the sanctions buster’ for his ability to get around arms embargoes, Bout was one of the world’s most wanted men before his 2008 arrest on multiple charges related to arms trafficking.
PICTURED: Russian female penal colony IK-2 in Yavas, about 500 km (300 miles) southeast of Moscow, in 1990
For almost two decades, Bout was one of the world’s most notorious arms dealers, selling weaponry to rogue states, rebel groups and murderous warlords in Africa, Asia and South America.
But in 2008, Bout was snared in an elaborate US sting.
Bout was caught on camera agreeing to sell undercover US agents posing as representatives of Colombia’s leftist FARC guerrillas 100 surface-to-air missiles, which they would use to kill US troops. Shortly afterwards, he was arrested by Thai police.
Bout was tried on the charges related to FARC, which he denied, and in 2012 was convicted and sentenced by a US judge in New York to 25 years in prison, the minimum sentence possible.
Ever since, the Russian state has been keen to get him back.
Women in Russian penal colonies have claimed they’re used as slave labor, working for 17 or 18 hours a day
Founded for the Soviet gulag system in 1931, Yavas remains one of the largest hubs in the Russian network of prisons and penal colonies. It currently has three institutions, including a women’s colony, a men’s colony, and a co-ed colony.
One infamous women’s facility in Mordovia, IK-14, is located just seven minutes from Yavas.
The notorious penal colony is known as a rat-infested sweatshop for prisoners, some of whom have lost fingers during long hours at their sewing machines. To deal with the rat population, the guards enlisted stray cats, which were later discarded into furnaces to keep their numbers down, according to a 2019 Radio Free Europe report.
Veronika Krass, one former IK-14 prisoner, told Radio Free Europe that a sign reading ‘welcome to hell’ greets new inmates at the penal colony.
Notable political prisoners have served time at IK-14, including Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a founding member of the punk group, Pussy Riot, and a vocal opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
‘As the inmates say, ”If you haven’t done time in Mordovia, you haven’t done time,” Tolokonnikova wrote in a letter published in 2013.
She described IK-14 as having ‘slavery-like conditions,’ where she worked in a sewing shop for ’16 to 17 hours a day’ while getting ‘four hours of sleep a night.’
WNBA player Brittney Griner was detained in Russia after officials found hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow, according to a report in the New York Times on Saturday March 5