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WASHINGTON — Russia and the United States carried out an unexpected prisoner swap at a time of heightened tensions, swapping a Navy veteran imprisoned by Moscow on Wednesday for a convicted Russian drug trafficker serving a long prison sentence in America.
The deal involving Trevor Reed, an American imprisoned for nearly three years, would have been a notable diplomatic maneuver even in peacetime, but it was all the more surprising given that it was struck as Russia’s war with Ukraine has pushed relations with the United States to a climax. lowest point in decades.
On the other end of the exchange was Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot who was serving a 20-year federal sentence for conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the United States.
Even though the Biden administration trumpeted the exchange, it made it clear that the resolution did not herald a broader breakthrough between the countries. Russian forces remain determined in their assault on Ukraine, the United States and its Western allies continue to impose punitive sanctions and other Americans, including WNBA star Brittney Griner and the head of security of Michigan company Paul Whelan are still imprisoned in Russia.
The exchange, the culmination of longstanding demands from both countries as well as private diplomatic wrangling, took place in Turkey when “The two planes stopped side by side, basically, and then they got out,” said Reed’s father, Joey.
“I think it’s going to really hit home for him and for us when we finally get to see him and touch him,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Reed, a 30-year-old former Marine from Texas, was arrested in the summer of 2019 after Russian authorities said he assaulted an officer while being driven by police to a police station after a night of heavy drinking. He was later sentenced to nine years in prison, although the US government described him as wrongfully detained and pushed for his release while his family claimed his innocence and expressed concerns about his deteriorating health – which included coughing up blood and a hunger strike.
Even on Wednesday, her parents’ joy was tempered by the concern they said they felt about her physical appearance. They were struck by his unsteady gait and thinness as TV footage captured him walking, flanked by guards, from a van to the plane.
“He just didn’t look like himself,” said Reed’s mother, Paula, recounting their brief phone conversation while he was on the plane. “We just asked him how he was and he said, ‘I’m fine.’ But he always says that even when he doesn’t. And he just didn’t sound like his normal self.
Reed was en route to the United States, traveling with Roger Cartsens, the US government’s presidential special envoy for hostage affairs.
President Joe Biden, who met with Reed’s parents in Washington last month, welcomed Reed’s release and noted without elaboration that “The negotiations that allowed us to bring Trevor home involved tough decisions that I do not take lightly.” The Russian government has also confirmed the deal, with the Foreign Ministry describing the swap as the “result of a long negotiation process.”
A senior Biden administration official warned that the negotiations were centered on a “discrete set of prisoner problems” and did not represent a change in the US government’s condemnation of Russia’s violence against Ukraine.
“Where we can have discussions on issues of common interest, we will try to talk to the Russians and have a constructive conversation without changing our approach to the appalling violence in Ukraine in any way,” he added. . the official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with ground rules established by the administration.
Yaroshenko, for his part, was arrested in Liberia in 2010 and extradited to the United States for drug trafficking. The Department of Justice described it as “an experienced international drug trafficker” who conspired to distribute thousands of kilograms of cocaine around the world.
A lawyer for Yaroshenko, who in 2020 unsuccessfully sought to have his client released on humanitarian grounds due to the coronavirus pandemic, did not return an email seeking comment on Wednesday.
Russia had demanded Yaroshenko’s return for years while rejecting pleas from senior US officials to release Reed, who was nearing his 1,000th day in detention after being convicted for what a US official, Ambassador John Sullivan , described as “ridiculous” proof.
The prisoner exchange was the most significant release under the Biden administration of an American deemed wrongfully detained abroad and came even as the families of detainees who have met over the past year with officials administration had described officials as cold to the idea of a swap.
The US government generally does not accept such exchanges. He fears this will encourage foreign governments to take other Americans prisoner in order to obtain concessions. And he worries about a potential false equivalence between a wrongfully detained American – who US officials believe Reed was – and a duly convicted criminal.