US, Russia Swap Prisoners Facing Lengthy Sentences

The United States and Russia exchanged high-profile prisoners on Wednesday even as the two countries remain sharply at odds over Moscow’s two-month invasion of Ukraine.

Russia freed Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine jailed in Russia since 2019 after Russian authorities said he assaulted a police officer when he was detained after a heavy night of drinking and later sentenced to nine years in prison.

Reed’s family had maintained his innocence.

In turn, the U.S. released Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a 20-year sentence in Connecticut for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. after he was arrested in Liberia in 2010 and extradited to the U.S.

While the prisoner swap was unusual, a senior U.S. official described it as a unilateral piece of diplomacy.

“The discussions with the Russians that led to this exchange were strictly limited to these topics, not a broader diplomatic conversation,” the official said.

“It (Reed’s release) represents no change, zero, to our approach to the appalling violence in Ukraine” being carried out by Russia.

Officials would not say where the prisoner exchange occurred, but in the hours before it took place, news accounts identified a plane belonging to Russia’s federal security service as flying to the Turkish capital Ankara. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons also updated its website to reflect that Yaroshenko was no longer imprisoned.

Reed’s parents, Joey and Paula Reed, had long pursued the release of their son, with newspaper ads and signs outside the White House. Their campaign caught the eye of White House officials and they met late last month with President Joe Biden.

“Our family has been living a nightmare. Today, our prayers have been answered and Trevor is safely on his way back to the United States,” Reed’s family said in a statement.

As the release of the two prisoners was announced in Moscow and Washington, Biden said in a statement, “I heard in the voices of Trevor’s parents how much they’ve worried about his health and missed his presence. And I was delighted to be able to share with them the good news about Trevor’s freedom.”

The U.S. leader added, “His safe return is a testament to the priority my administration places on bringing home Americans held hostage and wrongfully detained abroad. We won’t stop until Paul Whelan and others join Trevor in the loving arms of family and friends.”

Other Americans are still being jailed by Russia, including Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive being held on espionage-related charges that his family contends are bogus, and professional basketball player Brittney Griner, who was detained in February after authorities said a search of her bag revealed a cannabis derivative.

Biden said in his statement that the “negotiations that allowed us to bring Trevor home required difficult decisions that I do not take lightly,” although he did not elaborate.

U.S. officials over the years have warily reviewed prisoner swaps for fear that they may encourage more hostage-taking overseas of Americans in hopes of securing the release of foreigners convicted of crimes in the U.S.

VOA’s Nike Ching contributed to this story.