Hopes rose on Friday for a possible US-Russia prisoner swap that could free two imprisoned Americans after a senior Russian official said he foresaw the exchange talks would one day “turn into a concrete agreement”.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Russia hopes for a “positive outcome” on the issue of exchanging Russian national Viktor Bout, a convicted arms dealer serving a 25-year US prison sentence in the United States, according to state media outlet TASS .
The possibility of a prisoner swap is not only possible but growing, he said, adding, “and the time will come when the prospect of a concrete agreement will come,” TASS reported.
However, the US State Department cautioned against optimism based on Ryabkov’s comments, noting that Russia has yet to engage in good faith.
“After all, actions speak louder than words here,” said Deputy Secretary of State Vedant Patel.
In July, CNN reported that the Biden administration had offered to swap Bout as part of a possible deal to secure the release of two Americans held by Russia, basketball star Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan. But Russian officials have asked that Vadim Krasikov, a former colonel in the country’s domestic intelligence agency, be included in the US-proposed swap of Bout for Griner and Whelan, several sources familiar with the discussions previously told CNN.
“Americans are demonstrating some outward activity. We are engaged professionally through a dedicated channel. We haven’t reached common ground yet,” Ryabkov told reporters, according to TASS on Friday. “But there is no doubt that Viktor Bout is one of those being discussed and we certainly hope for a positive result.”
Responding to Ryabkov’s comments during a department meeting, Patel warned that “the Russian government’s failure to seriously discuss these issues in the established channels or any other channel for the matter runs counter to their public statements.”
“I will not comment on the details of any proposal other than to say that we made a substantive offer that the Russian Federation has consistently failed to negotiate in good faith,” he also said.
Bout’s attorney Steve Zissou told CNN on Friday that this week has been “full of hopeful signs” for a possible prisoner swap
Zissou said Ryabkov’s comments could mean anything: that a deal could happen at any time, or it could just be a reflection of Ryabkov’s response to a question. Notably, Bout’s artworks he created while in prison — most of which include sketches of prison scenes — are currently on display in the Russian State Duma.
Zissou has received constant assurances from Russian officials that Bout is at the top of Russia’s list for a prisoner swap. When Zissou met with the Russian ambassador to the US earlier this year, that assurance was repeated to him.
Zissou believes that a deal involving only Bout and Griner would be successful and he has expressed that view to US officials, he said, but the US would not agree to it because they don’t want to agree to a deal who would leave out Whelan.
He also expressed the view that President Joe Biden’s position would be strengthened with the midterm elections in the rearview mirror. Biden himself had expressed hope that the Russians would get more seriously involved after the election.
In August, Zissou told CNN’s New Day that he was “confident” that his client’s proposed prisoner swap would go ahead, adding, “Look, it’s no secret that they’ve wanted him back for several years. They’ve been trying to get him back for decades.”
However, the US State Department downplayed optimism about Friday’s negotiations, saying Russia has yet to engage in good faith.
“I will not comment on the specifics of any proposal other than to say that we have made a substantive offer which the Russian Federation has consistently failed to negotiate in good faith,” Deputy Chief State Department Spokesman Vedant Patel said in a department briefing .
The families of Whelan, who has been held by Russia since 2018 on alleged espionage, and WNBA star Griner, who has been jailed in Moscow since February on drug possession charges, have called on the White House to secure their release. The State Department has stated that both Griner and Whelan are wrongly imprisoned.
US and Irish embassy officials were able to visit Paul Whelan at his remote penal colony in Russia on Wednesday, his brother said in an email.
On Thursday, Griner’s lawyers confirmed she had been transferred to a penal colony in Yavas in western Russia’s Mordovia region, ending days of speculation as to her whereabouts.
Her lawyers, Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov, thanked everyone who came forward to help.
“First of all, on behalf of Brittney, we would like to thank everyone who took care of her,” the statement said. “We can confirm that Brittney began serving her sentence at IK-2 in Mordovia.”
“We were here earlier this week. Brittney is doing as well as could be expected, trying to stay strong while adjusting to a new environment. Considering this is a very challenging time for them, we will not be making any further comments.”