WASHINGTON — Russia and the United States have carried out an unexpected prisoner exchange in a time of high tensions, trading on Wednesday a Marine veteran jailed by Moscow 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 times of peace but it was all the more surprising because it was done as Russia's war with Ukraine has driven relations with the U.S. to their lowest point in decades.
On the other end of the swap was Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot who’d been serving a 20-year federal sentence for conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the U.S.
Even as the Biden administration trumpeted the swap, it made clear the resolution did not herald a broader breakthrough between the countries. Russian forces remain determined in their assault on Ukraine, the U.S. and Western allies continue to impose punishing sanctions and other Americans, including WNBA star Brittney Griner and Michigan corporate security executive Paul Whelan, still remain jailed in Russia.
The swap, the culmination of longstanding requests by both countries as well as private diplomatic wrangling, took place in Turkey when “the two planes pulled up side by side, essentially, 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 following a night of heavy drinking. He was later sentenced to nine years in prison, though the U.S. government has described him as unjustly detained and pressed for his release while his family has asserted his innocence and expressed concerns about his deteriorating health — which included coughing up blood and a hunger strike.
Even on Wednesday, his parents' joy was mitigated by the concern they said they felt about his physical appearance. They were struck by his unsteady gait and how thin he looked as TV footage captured him walking, flanked by guards, from a van to the jet.
“He just didn’t sound 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 doing and he said, ‘I’m fine.’ But he always says that even when he isn’t. And he just didn’t sound like his normal self.”
Reed was en route back to the U.S., traveling with Roger Cartsens, the U.S. government’s special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.
President Joe Biden, who met in Washington with Reed’s parents last month, hailed Reed’s release and noted without elaboration that “the negotiations that allowed us to bring Trevor home required difficult decisions that I do not take lightly.” The Russian government also confirmed the deal, with the foreign ministry describing the exchange as the “result of a long negotiation process.”
A senior Biden administration official cautioned that the negotiations centered on a “discrete set of prisoner issues” and did not represent a change to the U.S. government’s condemnation of Russia’s violence against Ukraine.
“Where we can have discussions on issues of mutual interest we will try to talk to the Russians and have a constructive conversation without any way changing our approach to the appalling violence in Ukraine,” the official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the administration.
Yaroshenko, for his part, was arrested in Liberia in 2010 and extradited to the U.S on drug trafficking charges. The Justice Department has described him 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 freed on compassionate release because of the coronavirus pandemic, did not return an email seeking comment Wednesday.
Russia had sought Yaroshenko's return for years while also rejecting entreaties by high-level U.S. officials to release Reed, who was approaching his 1,000th day in custody after being convicted on what one U.S. official, Ambassador John Sullivan, decried as “laughable” evidence.
The prisoner swap was the most prominent release during the Biden administration of an American deemed wrongly detained abroad and came even as families of detainees who have met over the last year with administration officials had described the officials as cool to the idea of an exchange.
The U.S. government does not typically embrace such exchanges. It fears doing so might encourage foreign governments to take additional Americans as prisoners as a way to extract concessions. And it is concerned about a potential false equivalency between an unjustly detained American — which U.S. officials believe Reed was — and a properly convicted criminal.
In this case, though, the U.S. decided the deal made sense in part because Yaroshenko had already served a long portion of his prison sentence, which has now been commuted, a senior official told the AP on condition of anonymity.
In a statement, the Reed family thanked Biden, “for making the decision to bring Trevor home," other administration officials, and Bill Richardson, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. The family said Richardson traveled to Moscow in the hours before the Ukraine war began in hopes of securing Reed's release.
Reed's release had no immediate impact on the cases of other Americans held by Russia. Griner, for one, was detained in February after Russian authorities said a search of her bag revealed vape cartridges containing oil derived from cannabis. Whelan is being held on espionage-related charges his family says are bogus.
Biden said Wednesday “we won’t stop until Paul Whelan and others join Trevor in the loving arms of family and friends.” U.S. officials have described Whelan as unjustly detained but as yet have not characterized Griner’s case in those terms. Whelan was convicted and sentenced to 16 years in prison; Griner is awaiting trial.
At home in Texas, the Reeds had been given a general sense of progress and had even begun cleaning Trevor's room in preparation for his return home, removing paperwork from his bed so he'd have a place to sleep.
It was a welcome turnabout from a month ago when they were demonstrating outside the White House for their son's release, then pressing their case in a private meeting with Biden.
“We’ve been saying for over a year if we could just speak to the president, that we felt like we could make this thing happen — and that’s exactly what happened,” Joey Reed said.