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Proposal for Griner, Whelan follows history of US-Russian prisoner exchanges

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Washington’s “substantial offer” to Moscow to free WNBA star Brittney Griner and security consultant Paul Whelan from Russian custody follows a long history of prisoner swaps between the adversaries.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby declined to elaborate, but Kirby said the Biden administration is “pursuing all avenues” to bring back Griner and Whelan at home.

News of the US proposal follows the April swap of former US Marine Trevor Reed for Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko in Turkey after months of negotiations. At the time, Bill Richardson, a retired lawmaker and diplomat who helped secure Reed’s release, told the Post he hoped the swap would pave the way for others and show that “both countries can, despite our huge differences, achieve a humanitarian breakthrough. ”

On July 27, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby confirmed the offer of a prisoner exchange with Russia in exchange for Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan. (Video: The Washington Post)

An exchange with Griner and Whelan would be the latest in decades of captive swaps between Washington and Moscow. The approach has cooled tensions and brought Americans and their allies home, although critics have argued that the exchanges incite holding Americans hostage.

“There’s a balance to be struck with every arrangement,” Kirby told reporters during a press briefing. “The balance between getting people home, but also making sure our own national security is upheld and that…we don’t encourage hostage taking.”

The first major exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union took place in February 1962, over the Glienicke Bridge connecting East and West Germany. The Americans freed convicted KGB spy Rudolf Abel in exchange for American pilot Francis Gary Powers, whose U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union. An American student detained in East Germany, Frederic Pryor, was also released as part of the deal.

However, this exchange almost never took place. US authorities were seeking the death penalty for Abel after his arrest in 1957. His US attorney, James Donovan, raised the idea of ​​a prisoner exchange, arguing that Abel would not face the death penalty.

“It is possible that in the foreseeable future,” Donovan said, “an American of equivalent rank will be captured by the Soviet Union or an ally. At that time, a prisoner exchange might be considered to be in the best interest of the United States.

In 1960, Powers’ plane was shot down over the Ural Mountains in the Soviet Union, setting the stage for the exchange.

The exchange was later portrayed in the 2015 Hollywood film “Bridge of Spies” – the nickname given to the Glienicke Bridge, which hosted several other prisoner exchanges during the Cold War. Actor Tom Hanks played Donovan.

After further exchanges in the years that followed, Washington and Moscow staged the largest East-West exchange of its kind when they exchanged more than two dozen people on the Glienicke Bridge in June 1985. United has released three convicted spies and one indicted, including Polish spy Marian Zacharski, who was found guilty of stealing top-secret military technology.

In return, 23 people held in East German and Polish prisons were released. Two other East Germans and their families were also allowed to leave for the West.

It took three years to reach an agreement on the exchange, the Washington Post reported at the time. Richard Burt, who would become US Ambassador to West Germany, expressed his satisfaction, saying those freed by the Russians were “very, very happy people”. A year later, another exchange would see Russian Nobel laureate Anatoly Sharansky freed by Soviet authorities.

Amid Griner trial, Russia warns US against pressure for prisoner swap

Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, prisoner exchanges continued.

In 2010, US authorities freed 10 Russian agents who had become deeply entrenched in US society by posing as citizens – later inspiring the TV show ‘The Americans’. In exchange, the Kremlin agreed to release four Russian officials it had imprisoned for illegal contacts with the West.

Among the expelled Russian spies was Anna Chapman, whose high-profile spy case caught his international attention. After returning home, she appeared on Russian television and on the cover of the Russian edition of Maxim magazine, dressed in lingerie and holding a gun.

Celebrity columnist Liz Kelly at the time expressed wry relief: “I sleep soundly knowing that this (red-headed) menace is thousands of miles from American shores, now confined to practicing his seduction on Russians. “

While officials haven’t confirmed details of the Griner-Whelan proposal, Blinken’s comments heighten speculation about a potential prisoner swap involving Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year prison sentence in Illinois for conspiracy to kill Americans and selling weapons to terrorist entities. .

WNBA star Brittney Griner testified on July 27 during her trial in Moscow for drug trafficking. She said her rights were not read when she was detained in February. (Video: Reuters)

Michael McFaul, the U.S. Ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration, told The Post in April 2020 that trading someone like Bout for Whelan would put the United States in “a tough spot.”

“There’s a real asymmetry in trading an innocent American for a real, convicted felon who happens to have Russian citizenship,” McFaul said.

Rodney N.

The author Rodney N.