By RFE RL
By Todd Prince
(RFE/RL) — After months of tough negotiations with the Kremlin, the Biden administration has finally secured the release of U.S. women’s basketball star Brittney Griner from a Russian prison.
The administration said December 8 that it had agreed with Moscow to swap convicted Russian arms trader Viktor Bout for Griner, 32, whose arrest, trial, and conviction sparked outrage in the United States.
Griner was sentenced in August by a court in Moscow to nine years in prison for possessing vape cartridges containing less than an ounce of cannabis oil, which is illegal in Russia.
The case has been viewed in Washington through the prism of strained U.S.-Russian relations, with officials saying the Kremlin was using Griner as a pawn to secure the release of high-profile Russians serving prison terms in the United States.
Bout, who was sentenced in 2011 to 25 years in a U.S. prison for conspiring to sell weapons to a Colombian terrorist group, was arguably the most high-profile Russian prisoner in the United States. The Kremlin had been fighting for years for his release.
The jubilation in the United States over Griner’s release has been muted by the fact that several Americans, including former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, continue to be held in Russian prisons on what many say are trumped-up charges.
U.S. and Russian officials had been discussing a larger swap of prisoners that included Whelan.
“While we celebrate Brittney’s release, Paul Whelan and his family continue to suffer needlessly. Despite our ceaseless efforts, the Russian government has not yet been willing to bring a long overdue end to his wrongful detention,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a December 8 statement. “Nevertheless, we will not relent in our efforts to bring Paul and all other U.S. nationals held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad home to their loved ones where they belong.”
Earlier this year, the Biden administration secured the release of Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine who was imprisoned in Russia for nearly three years on charges of assaulting two police officers.
In the case, the administration agreed to swap Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot from Russia who was sentenced in 2011 to 20 years in prison for conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the United States.
Below is a list of U.S. and Russian individuals who could be involved in another potential prisoner swap.
Paul Whelan, 52, a Michigan-based corporate security executive, was arrested in December 2018 on espionage charges while visiting Moscow for a friend’s wedding. Russia claimed Whelan was caught with a computer flash drive containing classified information.
Whelan, who holds U.S., British, Canadian, and Irish citizenship, said he was set up in a sting operation and had thought the drive, given to him by a Russian acquaintance, contained vacation photos.
In June 2020, he was found guilty and sentenced to 16 years behind bars. He is currently in a high-security prison. The U.S. government said Russia produced no evidence to prove Whelan’s guilt during a trial that it called a mockery of justice.
David Barnes, 65, a Texas resident, was arrested by Russian authorities in Moscow in January 2022 on charges of abusing his children in the United States.
Barnes traveled to Moscow in December 2021 to win the right to either see his children or bring them back home.
Barnes’s ex-wife, Svetlana Koptyaeva, fled to Russia with the children in 2019 amid divorce and custody proceedings. A Texas court in 2020 awarded Barnes custody of the children, and Koptyaeva is now wanted by the United States on charges of interfering with child custody.
Koptyaeva had accused Barnes of child abuse, but a 2018 investigation by the Department of Family and Protective Services did not find sufficient evidence to support such a conclusion and closed the case without filing any charges.
Marc Fogel, a 60-year-old English teacher, was arrested at an airport in Moscow in 2021 for carrying about half an ounce of medical marijuana.
He was sentenced to 14 years in a penal colony after prosecutors claimed he intended to sell the drugs to his students.
Fogel had been teaching for nearly a decade at the Anglo-American School in Moscow, a prestigious fee-paying primary school that had been established by the U.S., Canadian, and British embassies.
Fogel, who had surgeries on his back, shoulder, and knee, said he began to use medical marijuana while in the United States on summer break to cope with pain and tried to bring some of it back to Russia, where it is illegal.
Roman Seleznyov, the son of Valery Seleznyov — a member of Russia’s lower house of parliament and an outspoken critic of U.S. policies — is serving a 27-year sentence for various cybercrimes, including selling stolen U.S. credit card data.
Seleznyov, 38, was arrested by U.S. authorities in 2014 at an airport in the Maldives and quickly taken to the U.S. territory of Guam, sparking accusations by Moscow that he was kidnapped.
U.S. investigators uncovered Seleznyov’s online activities in the late 2000s and asked Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) for help. Seleznyov’s online footprint soon disappeared, leading U.S. investigators to believe Russia was protecting him.
Seleznyov (listed as Roman V. Seleznev in U.S. court papers) received one of the harshest sentences ever handed down to a Russian hacker because he chose to fight his case despite a preponderance of evidence rather than cooperate.
Vladislav Klyushin, 41, was arrested in Switzerland on March 21, 2021, on charges of stealing insider information and using it to make a fortune. He was extradited to the United States on December 18.
Klyushin is accused of being part of a group that hacked into networks to steal sensitive corporate data and use the information to trade stocks. The group is thought to have made a total of $82 million over a two-year period from 2018 to 2020.
The other members of the group remain at large. One of them is a former officer in the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate, known as the GRU, who was previously charged in July 2018 for his alleged role in a Russian effort to meddle in the 2016 U.S. elections.
Klyushin owned M-13, a Russian company that offers media-monitoring and cybersecurity services, and is believed to have Kremlin ties. His company provided IT solutions that were used by the Russian president, federal ministries and departments, as well as regional state executive bodies.
Aleksandr Vinnik, 43, who is also known as Mr. Bitcoin, was extradited to the United States on August 5 to face money-laundering charges.
Vinnik allegedly owned and operated BTC-e, one of the world’s largest digital-currency exchanges. The United States claims BTC-e was used extensively by cybercriminals worldwide to launder money because it did not require users to validate their identity, obscured and anonymized transactions and sources of funds, and lacked any due diligence processes.
Vinnik was arrested on a U.S. warrant in 2017 on a Greek beach while vacationing with his family. However, he was initially extradited to France to face separate money-laundering charges and sentenced to five years in prison.
He was released from a French prison on August 4 but immediately sent back to Greece, which had requested his return so it could execute the original U.S. warrant.
If convicted by a U.S. court, Vinnik faces up to 20 years in prison. The timing of Vinnik’s transfer to the United States coincided with the sentencing of Griner, giving rise to speculation he may be used in a possible prisoner swap.
Denis Dubnikov, 29, was extradited to the United States earlier this year on charges of laundering cryptocurrency tied to a notorious ransomware gang.
Dubnikov, who co-owns small crypto-exchanges, allegedly received hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of digital currency from Ryuk, a ransomware gang believed to have extracted tens of millions in ransoms, including from U.S. victims.
Dubnikov denied the charges, saying at the time through his lawyer that he did not know the source of the money that the United States alleges came from ransomware payments.
Dubnikov’s arrest has been called one of U.S. law enforcement’s first potential blows to the Ryuk gang, which is suspected of being behind a rash of cyberattacks on U.S. health-care organizations. The Wall Street Journal said that Ryuk took in more than $100 million in ransom payments last year.
- Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.