Russian government officials have called for a former colonel in the country’s national spy agency, convicted of murder in Germany last year, to be added to the US proposal to swap an arms dealer notorious against Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, multiple sources familiar with the talks said. CN.
The Russians communicated the request to the United States earlier this month via an informal communication channel used by the spy agency, known as the FSB, that they wanted Vadim Krasikov released in addition to Viktor Bout, the sources said. Krasikov was found guilty in December of murdering former Chechen fighter Zelimkhan “Tornike” Khangoshvili in Berlin’s Kleiner Tiergarten in 2019 and sentenced to life in prison.
The request was considered problematic for several reasons, the sources told CNN, including the fact that Krasikov is still in German custody. As such, and because the request was not communicated officially but rather via the FSB feedback channel, the US government did not view it as legitimate opposition to the US offer which has was first revealed by CNN on Wednesday.
But underscoring how determined the Biden administration was to bring Griner and Whelan back to the United States, US officials quietly asked the Germans if they would be willing to include Krasikov in the trade, a German government source told CNN. A US official called the outreach a verification of Krasikov’s status.
The talks were never taken to the highest levels of the German government and Krasikov’s inclusion in a potential swap was not seriously considered, the German source said. But previously unreported discussions reveal that Russian officials were at least somewhat engaged with the US proposal.
Although the request was not made through official channels, the FSB has a broad mandate and is an integral part of the Russian security apparatus. Russian President Vladimir Putin worked for his powerful predecessor, the KGB.
Adrienne Watson, spokeswoman for the National Security Council, told CNN after this story was published that “the holding of two Americans wrongfully held hostage for the release of a Russian assassin held by a third country is not not a serious counter-offer. It is a bad faith attempt to avoid the deal on the table that Russia should accept.
Asked for comment, a State Department official told CNN that “in order to preserve the best opportunity for a positive outcome, we are not going to publicly comment on any speculation.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that the United States put “a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago” to facilitate the release of Griner and Whelan. He added that “our governments have communicated several times and directly on this proposal”.
Blinken spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday about the proposed swap. They had a “frank and straightforward conversation,” Blinken said.
“I pressed the Kremlin to accept the substantial offer we made on the release of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner,” Blinken added.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Lavrov “strongly suggested” to Blinken that the United States should return to a mode of “silent diplomacy” regarding a possible prisoner exchange “without stuffing it with speculative information.”
It’s unclear if Krasikov was discussed on the call.
Multiple sources told CNN that even if it wasn’t Krasikov, the Russians would likely demand the release of two prisoners in exchange for Griner and Whelan. Russian government officials have publicly indicated in recent weeks that they want to see the release of Bout and Roman Seleznev, a convicted hacker who is currently serving a 27-year sentence in the United States.
“I am not sure that any additional activity, especially in the public sphere, will allow a correct and balanced compromise and will find a basis to alleviate the plight of many of our compatriots like Viktor Bout, who has health problems, [or] like Seleznev, and many others,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters earlier this month.
But US officials believe Russia is simply trying to buy time by making flimsy offers until Griner’s trial is over.
Griner is on trial for entering Russia in February with cannabis oil in her luggage, something she says she uses for pain relief and which she inadvertently put in her bags. Whelan was convicted of espionage in 2020 and sentenced to 16 years in prison. The State Department declared them wrongfully detained.