An American plane pulled along with a Russian plane on a runway in Turkey, two prisoners disembarked and were escorted at the same time to the opposite plane, where the Special Presidential Envoy for American Hostage Affairs Red Roger Carstens was received, and Russian citizen Konstantin Yaroshenko met with a representative of the United States. his government.
After more than two years in Russian detention, Reed returned to the United States.
According to US State Department spokesman Ned Price, Reid “was released once the sentence of the Russian pilot” – Yaroshenko – was commuted.
“This was a decision that the president made,” Price said in an interview with CNN.
President Joe Biden said he raised the matter with the Russians “three months ago.”
Behind the scenes, officials both inside and outside the US government worked for years to secure Reade’s release, including “months and months of hard work and caution across the US government,” one administration official told CNN, which took place in the background. Growing tensions between Washington and Moscow, which were greatly exacerbated by the brutal Russian war on Ukraine.
The US government effort was led in large part by US Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan – whose staff in Moscow had been left out due to Russian government restrictions – and Carstens’ team. An informed source said the issue was also raised at the highest levels, including by Biden, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and “other channels” of the US government.
Release of a prisoner from US custody is ultimately a decision up to the president, but it also requires approval from the Department of Justice, which is rare. And even then, when Biden made the decision to authorize the swap, Reid’s release was not immediate.
A crucial meeting before the war
The second source said that in February, in the days just before Russia’s war in Ukraine, members of the Richardson Center – which advocates specifically on behalf of families of hostages and detainees – were invited to Moscow to meet with the Russian leadership. The NSC was informed that the flight was taking place, and there were talks between the Richardson Center and the NSC before and after it.
After the visit, the Richardson Center came away with a clear sense of what the Russians were willing to do and how they were willing to do it. This was presented to the White House, the source said, in the hope that it would act on the advice – and quickly.
It was the culmination of factors around the Reade affair — his deteriorating health and family activism that led to a meeting with Biden, and the situation in Ukraine — that prompted Biden to allow the Yaroshenko swap, according to the second source.
Indeed, these concerns about Reade’s health have pressed the Biden administration’s efforts to bring him home from Russia, according to multiple sources, including Price.
Reade’s family said he had Covid-19, had contracted tuberculosis, and told them in March that he “coughs up blood several times a day, has a fever, and still has pain in his lung.”
These growing concerns about Reid’s health have led the administration to have a “more focused conversation about what will be necessary to make this happen in the near term,” the familiar first source said.
This source explained that there were warnings to Moscow that it would be a bad thing for both the United States and Russia if his health failed while he was in detention.
Referring to the Russians, the source said, US officials “emphasized that if these health conditions deteriorate, it’s obviously very bad for us because we want to keep Americans healthy and safe. But it would also be very bad for them.”
The second source noted that the exchange also came after Reeds met directly with Biden – the only family of the detainee to do so.
“We think that meeting with the president is what made it happen,” Joy Reed said Wednesday, and his wife Paula described it as a “turning point.”
That meeting came after a tremendous amount of public pressure and family appeals. When Biden was visiting Texas last month for an event about veterans’ health care, Reade’s parents sought a meeting through the White House. When they were refused, Al Reed stood outside where Biden was speaking, hoping to catch his attention on his arrival.
It worked to some extent. When he was arriving in his limousine, the pair caught Biden’s eyes with their sign, and he pointed in their direction. But the procession did not stop.
Later, in a phone call, Biden told Reeds that he had prayed the rosary for their son aboard Air Force One as he flew south. He told them he “thinks of Trevor every day”. Biden told the couple that someone from the White House would call them back.
Days and then weeks passed without words, and the Reeds were frustrated as their immediate attraction seemed to fade from memory.
So they came to Biden’s front yard, raised their sign in Lafayette Park across from the White House and said they would stay until Biden met them.
“We wanted to be here to draw attention to Trevor’s case and let them know we haven’t been forgotten,” Paula Reed said on the morning of March 30. “We’re waiting for the phone call. We want the meeting that the president promised us.”
It wasn’t just the chief’s attention that the Reds were looking for. They came to Washington with a specific request: that Biden consider a prisoner exchange that could lead to the release of their son.
By midday, Biden directed his team into a meeting and met Paula and Joey Reed in the Oval Office later that day.
Joy Reed then said, “He listened intently to everything we said until we were done talking. We couldn’t have asked for more.”
very difficult decision
A senior administration official told reporters Wednesday that negotiations with the Russians “led the president to make a very difficult decision with the decision to commute the sentence of Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian smuggler convicted of conspiring to import cocaine.”
According to the first source, the Russian government has long expressed interest in returning Yaroshenko from the United States.
They said the United States did not see an equivalent between the two cases, given that they considered Reid to be unjustly detained and Yaroshenko convicted in the US court system, but this was Russia’s “steadfast demand,” noting that it was something “debatable, but rather another step forward, negotiating a number of It’s more popular now, that they have something they want, they have people who want their home.”
The first source did not say whether Yaroshenko was explicitly linked to the Kremlin. Although the second source said he spoke of having close ties with Putin, questions remain about the actual closeness of their relationship.
The first source said that although the Ministry of Justice “did not actively participate in these negotiations with the Russians”, they should have allowed Yaroshenko’s release.
“It’s a conversation we’ve had with leadership at the Department of Justice for a while now,” the source told CNN, but noted that “this is the president’s call to do it.”
The source said Biden is regularly briefed on hostage and detainee cases, and has been advised by the Cabinet in making the decision on the prisoner exchange that freed Reade from Russian custody.
“This is a tough call for a president,” the senior administration official said.
“You can’t release these Americans for free,” former Governor Bill Richardson, head of the center of the same name, said in an interview with CNN on Wednesday. “There is always a price, but it was worth it.”
The officials emphasized that these were negotiations on “a separate issue on which we were able to reach an arrangement with the Russians.”
“It represents no change – zero – in our approach to the horrific violence in Ukraine,” a senior administration official said.
A second senior official told CNN they don’t necessarily see this success translate into momentum in the case of Paul Whelan or Britney Greiner, the other Americans held in Russia, although the US government will continue to press for their release, and a potential channel. Swaps will remain open.
“Why did you leave me behind? While I’m thrilled that Trevor is back home with his family, I have been held on a phantom espionage charge for 40 months,” Whelan said in a statement to his parents and shown to CNN. “The world knows this charge was trumped up. Why hasn’t more been done to secure my release?”