In a time of heightened tensions, Russia and the United States made an unexpected prisoner swap, exchanging a Marine veteran imprisoned by Moscow for a convicted Russian drug trafficker serving a long prison sentence in America on Wednesday.
Even in peacetime, the arrangement involving Trevor Reed, an American imprisoned for over three years, would have been unusual, but it was all the more shocking since it was made while Russia’s war with Ukraine has brought ties with the United States to their lowest point in decades.
Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a 20-year federal sentence for conspiring to bring cocaine into the United States, was on the opposite side of the deal.
Even as the Biden administration hailed the trade, it made it plain that the agreement did not represent a larger breakthrough between the two countries. Russian soldiers are continuing their attack on Ukraine, the United States and its Western allies are imposing harsh sanctions, and other Americans, like WNBA star Brittney Griner and Michigan corporate security executive Paul Whelan, are still imprisoned in Russia.
The swap took place in Turkey, when “the two aircraft drew up side by side, practically, and then they got off,” according to Reed’s father, Joey. It was the conclusion of prolonged pleas by both governments as well as secret diplomatic haggling.
“I believe that will truly hit home for him and for us when we finally get to meet and touch him,” he added in a media interview.
Reed, a 30-year-old former Marine from Texas, was apprehended in the summer of 2019 when Russian officials said he attacked a police officer while being transported to a police station by officers after a night of heavy drinking. He was later sentenced to nine years in prison, despite the fact that the US government has described him as being wrongfully detained and pressed for his release, while his family has maintained his innocence and expressed concerns about his deteriorating health, which included coughing up blood and a hunger strike.
Even on Wednesday, his parents’ happiness was tempered by their expressed concern over his physical appearance. As TV video recorded him strolling from a vehicle to the plane, they were startled by his shaky pace and how emaciated he appeared.
Reed’s mother, Paula, recalled their brief phone chat when he was on the aircraft, saying, “He just didn’t seem like himself.” “We just inquired about his well-being, and he said, ‘I’m good.’ Even when he isn’t, he always says that. And he didn’t sound anything like his usual self.”
Reed was on his way back to the United States, accompanied by Roger Cartsens, the United States’ special presidential envoy for hostage problems.
President Joe Biden praised Reed’s release at a meeting with his parents in Washington last month, saying, “The negotiations that allowed us to bring Trevor home were difficult decisions that I do not take lightly.” The arrangement was also confirmed by the Russian government, with the foreign ministry characterizing it as the “product of a protracted negotiating process.”
The talks, according to a senior Biden administration source, were focused on a “separate set of prisoner concerns” and did not indicate a shift in the US government’s criticism of Russia’s actions against Ukraine.
“Wherever we can have constructive discussions on issues of mutual interest, we will try to talk to the Russians and have a constructive conversation without changing our approach to the appalling violence in Ukraine,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to administration ground rules.
In 2010, Yaroshenko was arrested in Liberia and extradited to the United States on cocaine trafficking accusations. He was “an experienced international narcotics trafficker,” according to the Justice Department, who conspired to distribute thousands of kilos of cocaine throughout the world.
A lawyer for Yaroshenko, who unsuccessfully requested compassionate release for his client in 2020 due to the coronavirus epidemic, did not respond to an email seeking comment on Wednesday.
For years, Russia has pursued Yaroshenko’s release while also refusing pleas from high-ranking US officials to free Reed, who was reaching his 1,000th day in detention after being convicted on “laughable” evidence, according to one US official, Ambassador John Sullivan.
The prisoner swap was the most visible release of an American deemed wrongfully detained abroad during the Biden administration, and it came despite the fact that families of detainees who met with administration officials over the last year described the officials as dismissive of the idea of an exchange.
Such contacts are not usually welcomed by the US administration. It is concerned that doing so may encourage foreign governments to imprison more Americans as a means of extracting concessions. It’s also worried about the possibility of a false equivalence between an unjustly held American — as US officials believe Reed was — and a duly convicted criminal.
However, in this case, the US thought the agreement made sense in part because Yaroshenko had already completed a significant portion of his jail sentence, which had been commuted, according to a senior official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to the media.
In a statement, the Reed family praised Biden, other administration officials, including Bill Richardson, the former US ambassador to the United Nations, for “making the choice to bring Trevor home.” According to the family, Richardson went to Moscow just hours before the Ukraine crisis broke out in the hopes of obtaining Reed’s release.
The release of Reed had no immediate influence on the cases of other Americans imprisoned in Russian detention centers. For example, Griner was arrested in February when Russian officials claimed that a check of her purse uncovered vape cartridges carrying cannabis-derived oil. Whelan is being jailed on trumped-up espionage allegations, according to his relatives.
“We won’t stop until Paul Whelan and others join Trevor in the loving embrace of family and friends,” Biden said on Wednesday. Whelan was wrongfully arrested, according to US officials, but Griner’s case has yet to be framed in similar terms. Griner is awaiting trial, while Whelan was convicted and sentenced to 16 years in jail.
The Reeds had been given a broad sense of progress back home in Texas, and they had even started tidying Trevor’s room in anticipation for his return, clearing documents off his bed so he could sleep.
It was a pleasant change from a month earlier, when they were protesting outside the White House for their son’s release before pressing their cause in a private meeting with Vice President Joe Biden.
Joey Reed stated, “We’ve been saying for over a year that if we could just talk to the president, we felt like we could make this thing happen — and that’s precisely what happened.”