Russia has exchanged Trevor Reed, a former American marine held in a Russian prison for three years, for its citizen Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was serving a 20-year sentence in the United States on drug charges.
The prisoner swap took place on Wednesday as the result of a lengthy negotiation process, foreign ministry spokewoman Maria Zakharova said on her Telegram channel.
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Russian state TV aired footage of Reed being brought to Vnukovo airport ahead of his return to the US. The exchange took place in Turkey, Reed’s father, Joey Reed, told American broadcaster CNN.
“The American plane pulled up next to the Russian plane and they walked both prisoners across at the same time, like you see in the movies,” he said.
The deal would have been a notable diplomatic manoeuvre even in times of peace. It was all the more surprising because it was done as Russia’s war with Ukraine has driven relations with the US to their lowest point in decades.
The White House confirmed Reed’s release with President Joe Biden saying in a statement that Reed “is free from Russian detention”.
“I heard in the voices of Trevor’s parents how much they’ve worried about his health and missed his presence,” Biden said. “And I was delighted to be able to share with them the good news about Trevor’s freedom.”
He added the negotiations for Reed’s release “required difficult decisions that I do not take lightly”.
The US president did not directly name Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot who was serving a 20-year sentence after being convicted of conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the US. He was arrested in Liberia in 2010.
The US Justice Department has described Yaroshenko as “an experienced international drug trafficker” who conspired to distribute thousands of kilogrammes of cocaine around the world.
The swap seemed unlikely to herald any larger breakthrough between Washington and Moscow.
A senior Biden administration official cautioned the negotiations centred on a “discrete set of prisoner issues” and did not represent a change to the US government’s condemnation of Russian 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.
As we welcome home Trevor Reed, we are grateful to Turkey for its role in making his safe return possible. We appreciate our Turkish partners’ assistance on this important matter.
— Jake Sullivan (@JakeSullivan46) April 27, 2022
Reed was arrested in the summer of 2019 after Russian authorities said he assaulted an officer in Moscow during a night of heavy drinking. He was later sentenced to nine years in prison, though his family has maintained his innocence and the US government has described him as unjustly detained.
Reporting from Moscow, Al Jazeera’s Dorsa Jabbari noted Reed launched a hunger strike in March.
“Reed was arrested in 2019 and charged with assaulting and endangering the life of a police officer here in Moscow,” she said. “He was given a sentence of nine years in 2020, which is close to the maximum sentence of 10 years he could have got.”
In a statement, the Reed family thanked Biden “for making the decision to bring Trevor home” as well as other administration officials and Bill Richardson, the former US ambassador to the United Nations who the family said traveled to Moscow in the hours before the Ukraine war began in hopes of securing Reed’s release.
“Today, our prayers have been answered and Trevor is on his way back safely to the United States,” the family said.
Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan later on Wednesday also thanked Turkey for “its role in making [Reed’s] safe return possible”.
Reed was one of several Americans known to be held by Russia, including WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was detained in February after authorities said a search of her bag revealed a cannabis derivative.
Corporate security executive Paul Whelan is being held on espionage-related charges his family says are bogus. It was unclear what if any impact Wednesday’s action might have on their cases.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price told CNN on Wednesday that the Biden administration continues “to work day in, day out” on Whelan’s case.
“When it comes to Brittney Griner, we are working very closely with her team. Her case is a top priority for us,” Price also said. “We’re in regular contact with her team.”
Russia had sought Yaroshenko’s return for years while also rejecting entreaties by high-level US officials to release Reed, who was approaching his 1,000th day in custody and whose health had recently been worsening, according to his family.
His family said Reed’s poor health included symptoms of tuberculosis.
The US government does not typically embrace such exchanges for fear it might encourage foreign governments to take additional Americans as prisoners as a way to extract concessions and to avoid a potential false equivalency between an unjustly detained American – which US officials believe Reed was – and a properly convicted criminal.
In this case, though, the US decided the deal made sense in part because Yaroshenko had already served a long portion of his prison sentence, which has now been commuted.