Washington (AFP) – The worst possible moment to bring Trevor Reid home turned out to be the best.
With US-Russian relations at their lowest point in decades, it seemed like an unlikely time to hope for Red release, a former Marine who has been held in Russia for nearly three years. However, this week the Biden administration completed the kind of treatment it had seemed resistant to earlier, replacing Reade with Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot and convicted drug smuggler serving a 20-year prison sentence in Connecticut.
A series of events and considerations in the past two months have helped facilitate the exchange, including mounting concerns about Reid’s health, a private meeting in the Oval Office between his parents and President Joe Biden, and a secret trip to Moscow by a former diplomat on the cusp Russia’s war with Ukraine.
“These three forced the White House to make a decision they had never made before,” said Mickey Bergman, vice president of the Richardson Center for Global Engagement.
How the war — and the breakdown in US-Russian relations — affected the deal is not clear. US officials stressed that negotiations for Reid’s release were narrow in scope, focused squarely on prisoners of war rather than the Russian war and did not reflect any broader diplomatic involvement. But while the timing of the deal was astounding, it’s also clear that the foundation for it was laid before the conflict began
“I did it,” Biden told reporters Wednesday about the deal. “I raised it. I raised him three months ago.”
When the war was about to begin, Bergman and his colleague Bill Richardson, the former US ambassador to the United Nations and former governor of New Mexico, traveled to Moscow on FedEx CEO Fred Smith’s plane to meet with the Russian government. officials. It was a continuation of the negotiations they were conducting for the release of Reed and another imprisoned American, Corporate Security Director Paul Whelan.
They left with the liner in place for the one-to-one swap that happened at the end.
In Texas, Joy and Paula Reed were concerned that Russia’s war with Ukraine, and the resulting tensions with the United States, could block channels of communication and prevent any common ground for negotiations. During meetings with administration officials last year — including with the Justice Department, which prosecuted Yaroshenko — the couple voiced support for a trade-off but said they were not led to believe it was a viable option.
They didn’t say, ‘Oh, we agree, that’s a great deal. It’s a good point, Paula Reed said in an interview with the Associated Press in March. “They didn’t say anything like that. They just said, ‘We hear you. Thank you very much.’”
But weeks into the war, the pair did something that caught the attention of the White House.
When Biden traveled to Texas to support the veterans, Al Reed stood along the motorcade route in hopes of getting a meaningful interview with the president. It didn’t happen, although he did speak on the phone with the couple. Later that month, they arrived in Washington and stood with banners near the White House, hoping to meet the president again.
This time, they were invited to the Oval Office to sit with Biden and other administration officials. The White House issued a statement that night reiterating its commitment to bringing Reed and Whelan home, an issue that senior officials had raised in private meetings with Russian leaders.
The meeting was a rare part of presidential access for the family of an American detainee, especially since Biden himself has not been public about his predecessor, Donald Trump, about efforts to bring Americans home.
Red’s health was hovering in the background, too. In March, Reed told his parents that he was coughing up blood several times a day, and had pain in his lung and a broken rib. Last year, he contracted COVID-19. Until Wednesday, his parents were surprised at how thin their son looked during video footage of the transfer. They said they expect he will need medical attention before resuming his daily life in Texas.
These health problems have also worried US officials.
“I think that really escalated the conversations on this issue, getting to a point where we were able to make that arrangement, getting to a point where we were able to have some of the logistics simply get it done,” a senior administration official told reporters in a background briefing this week.
Separately, Yaroshenko’s lawyer said that his client also suffered from multiple health problems, and in 2020 unsuccessfully tried to release him early from his 20-year sentence in humanitarian prison due to the pandemic.
Whelan, who is serving a 16-year prison sentence on espionage charges his family says were fabricated, has been excluded from any deal, and Britney Greinerthe WNBA star was detained in February after Russian authorities said a search of her bag revealed a derivative of cannabis.
Whelan’s family said in a statement that they are happy that Reid has been released but are concerned that their loved ones were not a part of it.
“Paul has already spent three and a quarter years as a Russian hostage,” the statement said. “Is President Biden’s failure to bring Paul home an admission that some issues are difficult to resolve? Is the administration’s incremental approach reaping low-falling fruits?”
Richardson, who has helped facilitate the release of American detainees and hostages in recent years, said Biden’s team deserves credit for allowing this exchange to take place at a time when relations between the United States and Russia were very poor.
“It doesn’t matter who gets the credit, as long as hostages like Trevor Reed are in the house,” Richardson said.