WASHINGTON (AP) – Russia and the United States on Wednesday staged a dramatic prisoner exchange in which they traded with a Navy veteran imprisoned in Moscow for a convicted Russian drug smuggler serving a long prison sentence in America, a senior U.S. official and Russia’s foreign ministry said. .
The surprise deal would have been a remarkable diplomatic maneuver even in peacetime, but it was all the more extraordinary because it was implemented as Russia’s war with Ukraine has driven relations with the United States to their lowest point in decades.
As part of the exchange, Russia released Trevor Reed, a former Marine from Texas who 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 . Reed was later sentenced to nine years in prison, although his family has maintained his innocence and the US government has described him as wrongfully detained.
The United States agreed to return Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a 20-year federal prison sentence in Connecticut for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the United States after he was arrested in Liberia in 2010 and extradited to the United States.
Russia had sought to return for years, while also rejecting requests from senior U.S. officials to release Reed, who was approaching his 1,000th. day in custody, and whose health had recently deteriorated, according to his family.
A senior U.S. official who was not authorized to discuss the case by name and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity described Reed’s case as one of the “top priorities” for the Biden administration, including because of his health. The official noted that Yaroshenko, whose sentence has now been commuted, had already served the majority of his sentence.
“It was a difficult decision, but one that we thought was worth it,” the official said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said the exchange of Reed and Yaroshenko was “the result of a lengthy negotiation process.”
The two prisoners were exchanged in a European country. Although officials would not say where the transfer took place, commercial aircraft trackers identified in the hours before it happened that a plane belonging to Russia’s federal security service was flying to Ankara, Turkey. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons also updated its website overnight to reflect that Yaroshenko was no longer in custody.
Reed was on his way back to the United States and traveled with Roger Cartsens, the US Government’s special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.
The prisoner exchange marks the highest-profile release during the Biden administration of an American who is considered unjustly detained abroad, and even comes as families of prisoners who have met over the past year with government officials had described them as cool to the idea of an exchange.
In a statement, the Reed family thanked President Joe Biden “for making the decision to bring Trevor home” as well as other administration officials and Bill Richardson, the former US ambassador to the UN, who the family said traveled to Moscow in the hours before. The Ukraine war began in hopes of securing Reed’s release.
Reed was one of several Americans known to be detained by Russia, including WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was detained in February after authorities said a search of her bag revealed a cannabis derivative, and the Michigan Corporate Security Executive Paul Whelan, who is detained on espionage-related charges that his family says are false. It was unclear what if any influence Wednesday’s action could have on their cases.
Reed’s parents obtained a rare private meeting with Biden and administration officials last month. They had stood weeks earlier along his procession route during a presidential visit to Texas in hopes of attracting his attention, and later demonstrated outside the White House to ask for a meeting.