CNN exclusive: Russian officials request to add convicted killer to Griner/Whelan prisoner swap

Sources said the Russians earlier this month requested the US through an unofficial backchannel used by the spy agency known as the FSB that they wanted to release Vadim Kasykov in addition to Viktor Bout. Kasykov was convicted and sentenced to prison for the murder of a former Chechen fighter, Zelimkhan “Tornik” Khangoshvili, in Berlin’s Kleiner Tiergarten in December 2019.

The request was seen as problematic for a number of reasons, sources told CNN, among them Kasyakov is in German custody. As such, and because the request was communicated through the FSB backchannel, not formally, the US government did not see it as a legitimate counter to the US proposal, which was first revealed by CNN on Wednesday.

But underscoring how determined the Biden administration is to bring Griner and Whelan back to America, US officials quietly inquired from the Germans about whether they might be willing to engage Kasyakov in the business, a senior German official said. A government source told CNN. A US official described the outreach as a status check on Kacsikov.

The German source said the talks were never escalated to the top level of the German government and that Kasykov’s involvement in the potential trade was not seriously considered. But previously unreported discussions suggest that Russian officials have worked with the US proposal, at least to some extent.

Although the request was not made through formal channels, the FSB has a wide remit and is a core part of the Russian security apparatus. Russian President Vladimir Putin famously worked for his powerful predecessor, the KGB.

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Adrienne Watson, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, told CNN after the story was published that “taking two wrongly detained Americans hostage to the release of a Russian killer in third-country custody is a serious counter-proposition.” No. It’s a bad proposition. Vishwas is trying to avoid the deal that Russia should take.

When asked for comment, a State Department official told CNN that “to preserve the best chance for a successful outcome, we are not going to comment publicly on any speculation.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday that the US had put “an important proposal on the table weeks ago” to facilitate the release of Griner and Whelan. He added that “our governments have repeatedly and directly communicated on that proposal.”

Blinken spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday about the proposed swap. He had a “clear and direct conversation,” Blinken said.

“I put pressure on the Kremlin to accept a substantial offer to release Paul Whelan and Brittany Griner,” Blinken said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Lavrov “strongly suggested” to Blinken that the United States should return to a mode of “quiet diplomacy” regarding a possible prisoner exchange “without stuffing speculative information.”

It is not clear whether Kassikov was discussed on the call.

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Multiple sources told CNN that even though it is not Krassikov, Russia will likely seek the release of two prisoners 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 who is currently serving a 27-year sentence in the US.

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“I am not sure that any additional activity, especially in the public sector, will help to strike a right, balanced compromise and a basis for mitigating the fate of many of our compatriots, such as Viktor Bout, who have health problems. will get, [or] Like Seleznev, and many others,” Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters earlier this month.

But US officials believe that until Griner’s trial is over, Russia is trying to buy time by offering to inexplicably.

Griner is facing trial for allegedly entering Russia in February with cannabis oil in her luggage she said she uses for pain relief and that she inadvertently packs in her bag. Whelan was convicted of espionage in 2020 and sentenced to 16 years in prison. The State Department has announced the wrongful detention of both.

CNN’s Jennifer Hansler contributed reporting.

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