(WASHINGTON) — U.S. and Russian officials have been negotiating the prisoner swap for Trevor Reed for months, according to senior administration officials Wednesday, with talks intensifying in recent weeks amid concern about his health.
As the Marine veteran, held since August 2019, was released, he met with U.S. special presidential envoy for hostage affairs Roger Carstens — and was described by an administration official as being in “good spirits” — before traveling onward to the U.S., the officials said.
This diplomatic exchange continued even amid Russia’s war in Ukraine — but the senior administration officials made clear, the talks never touched on the war or U.S. sanctions.
There was not even senior-level U.S. official travel to Russia to negotiate the exchange, according to the officials.
“This is a discrete issue on which we were able to make an arrangement with the Russians. It represents no change — zero — to our approach to the appalling violence in Ukraine,” a senior administration official told reporters.
“Let me just emphasize this again because it’s so important — the discussion with the Russians that led to this exchange were strictly limited to these topics, not a broader diplomatic conversation or even the starting point,” they added.
Topics around the war “weren’t broached. They were never intended to be broached” during the high-stakes secrets talks, a second senior administration official said.
After months of talks, President Joe Biden made “a very hard decision” to commute the sentence of Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian drug smuggler convicted of conspiring to import cocaine into the U.S.
But the senior administration officials emphasized Yaroshenko was not pardoned, and argued he “has already paid a steep price in the U.S. justice system for his crime. In fact, he’s already served the majority of his sentence.”
Serving a nine-year sentence in a remote prison camp, Reed went on a second hunger strike in late March to protest his treatment, according to his family. After a reported exposure to tuberculosis in December, his family was increasingly concerned about reports he was coughing up blood or experiencing fevers, especially when he was transferred to a prison hospital on April 1.
Appearing publicly for the first time in months, Reed told a Russian court via video teleconference on April 12 that it had been two weeks since he’d coughed up blood or had a fever, but he said he wasn’t receiving medical care for a broken rib.
While American Paul Whelan, another Marine veteran, has been held longer than Reed, it was Reed’s failing health and his family and the U.S. government’s concern that led to his case being raised in the exchange.
The officials declined to say more about Reed’s condition now or when and where he is expected to arrive in the U.S., out of privacy concerns for him and his family.
Yaroshenko is in Russian custody now, they confirmed.
But they repeatedly emphasized the Biden administration’s commitment to securing the freedom of U.S. citizens unjustly detained around the world.
“We will continue to work on and attempt to find ways to address other cases as best we can,” the senior administration official said when asked about Whelan and American WNBA star Brittney Griner, detained in Russia since February.
Whelan was also a tourist in Russia when he was arrested on espionage charges that he, his family, and the U.S. government have said are spurious.
Whelan has been detained since December 2018 and was sentenced to 16 years in prison in June 2020 — transferred to a prison colony eight hours southeast of Moscow.
Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner, has been held since being accused of having hashish oil in her suitcase while returning to Russia to play basketball.
She remains in pre-trial detention, with a court extending her detention until May 19.
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