Russia’s Absurd Demands for Griner and Whalen Release

Moscow is playing a very strange game.

CNN Exclusive: “Russian officials requested adding convicted murderer to Griner/Whelan prisoner swap

Russian government officials requested that a former colonel from the country’s domestic spy agency who was convicted of murder in Germany last year be included in the US’ proposed swap of a notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout for Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, multiple sources familiar with the discussions told CNN.

The Russians communicated the request to the US earlier this month through an informal backchannel used by the spy agency, known as the FSB, that they wanted Vadim Krasikov released, the sources said. Krasikov was convicted in December of murdering a former Chechen fighter, Zelimkhan “Tornike” Khangoshvili, in Berlin’s Kleiner Tiergarten in 2019 and sentenced to life in prison.

The request was seen as problematic for several reasons, the sources told CNN, among them that Krasikov remains in German custody. As such, and because the request was not communicated formally but rather through the FSB backchannel, the US government did not view it as a legitimate counter to the US’ offer which was first revealed by CNN on Wednesday.

But underscoring how determined the Biden administration has been to get Griner and Whelan back to the US, US officials did make quiet inquiries to the Germans about whether they might be willing to include Krasikov in the trade, a senior German government source told CNN. A US official characterized the outreach as a status check on Krasikov.

The conversations were never elevated to the top levels of the German government and including Krasikov in a potential trade has not been seriously considered, the German source said. But the previously unreported discussions reveal that Russian officials have at least somewhat engaged with the US’ proposal.

In the old days of the Cold War, it was rather routine to swap spies that had been caught in the act. Occasionally, we would even give up a Soviet spy in exchange for a particularly notable dissident being held as a political prisoner. This, though, is simple extortion. The Russians are demanding the release of two high-level criminals in exchange for people being held on trumped-up charges.

Adrienne Watson, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, told CNN after this story was published that “holding two wrongfully detained Americans hostage for the release of a Russian assassin in a third country’s custody is not a serious counter-offer. It is a bad faith attempt to avoid the deal on the table that Russia should take.”

National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby echoed Watson on Friday, calling Russia’s request a “bad faith attempt to avoid a very serious offer” during an interview with CNN’s Jim Sciutto on “Erin Burnett OutFront.” He added: “We urge Russia to take that offer seriously.”

Pressed by Sciutto on whether this development signals negotiations are stalled, Kirby said he would not describe the current situation that way.

“It’s just that they haven’t been willing to faithfully consider or even seriously consider the offer that we put forward. I would not say stalled. … We very much want to see Brittney and Paul come home to their families where they belong. They’re wrongfully detained there. And we’re just going to keep at that work,” Kirby said.

Asked for comment, a State Department official told CNN that “In order to preserve the best opportunity for a successful outcome, we’re not going to comment publicly on any speculation.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday that the US had put “a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago” to facilitate Griner and Whelan’s release. He added that “our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal.”

Whelan seems to be something of a sad sack. He’s a convicted criminal and serial fraudster. I very seriously doubt the CIA recruited a guy kicked out of the Marine Corps on a dishonorable discharge as a Russian asset.

The Griner case is simply bizarre. She entered Russia in February with cannabis oil in her luggage. If that’s a violation of Russian law, they obviously have the right to prosecute her. But it’s absurd that she’s been in custody so long for such a minor offense. Beyond simple justice, it’s unfathomable to me that Moscow is basically sending up a signal for prominent athletes and other high-profile figures not to come. I’m not sure that’s worth getting a prisoner back.

Regardless, you’d surely think the return of a prominent arms dealer is more than enough compensation for this deal.

Multiple sources told CNN that even if it is not Krasikov, the Russians will likely demand two prisoners be released in exchange for Griner and Whelan. Russian government officials have indicated publicly in recent weeks that they want to see the release of Bout and Roman Seleznev, a convicted hacker currently serving a 27-year sentence in the US.

“I’m not sure that any additional activity, especially in the public sphere, will help a correct, balanced compromise and find a basis to alleviate the fate of a lot of our compatriots such as Viktor Bout, who has health problems, [or] such as Seleznev, and many others,” Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov told reporters earlier this month.

But US officials believe Russia is just trying to buy time by making unserious offers until Griner’s trial is over.

Maybe there’s something I’m missing in terms of signaling to his domestic audience. But Putin is playing the foreign policy game about as poorly as possible given a reasonably strong hand. He’s turned Russia from a serious power—a permanent member of the UN Security Council and the G-8—into an international pariah. For, what, exactly?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Kathy says:

    Biden should demand also the release of Roman Protasevicha and Sofia Sapega, who are in Belarus after being kidnapped from a Ryanair flight.

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  2. Gustopher says:

    Regardless, you’d surely think the return of a prominent arms dealer is more than enough compensation for this deal.

    It’s too much. It would be rewarding Putin for taking hostages, and would encourage a repeat.

    Leaving the hostages where they are is bad, but less worse.

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  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    He’s turned Russia from a serious power—a permanent member of the UN Security Council and the G-8—into an international pariah. For, what, exactly?

    Delusions of grandeur.

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  4. dazedandconfused says:

    To be expected, given Biden is the one under pressure to “do something” for Griner and Putin is under no pressure to do anything about anyone we have.

  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    When one side cares about human life and the other does not, the advantage goes to the more ruthless. In my ‘bright clear line from A to Z’ mode I’d say the winning move is to write Griner off. But then we wouldn’t be us anymore. We create vulnerabilities by virtue of not being soulless monsters. But it’s worth it.

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  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Michael Reynolds: But it’s worth it.

    Yep.

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  7. The Big Bad Bionic Boy says:

    James wrote-

    For, what, exactly?

    I want a Miata. I want a trip to Disney World. I want X-Men comic book number one. I want a lifetime subscription to Playboy and throw in Penthouse.

  8. JohnSF says:

    Putinocracy being Putinocracy: performative sadism as an assertion of power.

    See also other news this week:
    Russian soldiers torturing and murdering Ukrainians.
    More than fifty Ukrainian POW’s killed in Donetsk area.
    Russian pretence that they were killed by Ukrainians firing American missiles.
    Statement that “they deserved a humiliating death”
    But we didn’t do it.
    Oh no.
    Wicked Ukrainians with NATO weapons did.
    Rally to our cause, ye tankies!

    Usual Russian autocratic line, and very similar to fascism 101:
    – We are powerful and virile, you cannot halt our inevitable victory! Ha haa!
    Also, simultaneously:
    – How we are persecuted and slandered by wicked globalist conspiracy!

    It’s really rather pathetic, as well as contemptible, and criminal.

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  9. dazedandconfused says:

    Rounded up more trade-bait this week.

    And, perhaps most chillingly: “Federal agents have also seized photographs from the defendants’ residence that depict the defendants apparently some years ago wearing what have been identified as KGB uniforms.”

    Deep cover Russian agent’s like this? They’ve probably been hip to them for quite some time.

  10. Robert says:

    Trumpet up charges??? Brittney griner smuggled drugs into Russia. Rather knownly or not, ignorant under the law is no excuse.

  11. Jax says:

    Giggling….I see the Russians have entered the building.