On July 13, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov pledged that his ministry would “do everything it can do to free Russian citizens serving prison terms in the U.S.”
"We as an agency will do everything in order to hasten the moment when the families of Konstantin Yaroshenko and Viktor Bout will reunite[,] when Roman Seleznyov and our other compatriots who have ended up in such a tough predicament in life would be able to return home,” Ryabkov said, according to Russia’s TASS state news agency.
The claim is misleading.
Ryabkov said Bout, Yaroshenko and Seleznyov “ended up in a tough predicament in life” without mentioning that all three were convicted of major crimes.
Viktor Bout was an international arms trafficker whose business dealings in the 1990s and early 2000s earned him the monikers “The Merchant of Death” and “Sanctions Buster,” the latter referring to his knack for getting his supply planes into countries under embargo. Most of Bout’s arms deals took place in Africa, where he supplied arms to factions in several different countries and to Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, who was later convicted of war crimes. There is evidence that Bout may also have had dealings with the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan before the U.S. invaded that country in 2001.
Bout began drawing the ire of European law enforcement in the early 2000s, and the U.S. government froze his assets in 2004. However, in 2008, U.S. law enforcement agents caught up with Bout in Bangkok and executed a sting operation, in which he agreed to sell man-portable surface-to-air missiles to the Colombian terrorist group FARC. Initially arrested by Thai authorities, Bout was extradited to the U.S. two years later, where he was convicted. In 2012, he sentenced to 25 years in prison. He is currently serving his sentence at the U.S. Penitentiary Marion, located in Illinois.
Konstantin Yaroshenko was a pilot involved in a scheme to smuggle $100 million worth of cocaine into the U.S. and other countries. The plot’s mastermind was Chigbo Umeh, a Nigerian who was working with officials in Liberia to turn that country into an international drug trafficking hub. Neither Umeh nor Yaroshenko knew that the men who had connected them to set up their transport agreement were confidential U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency informants. He was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. In 2017, Russia’s ombudsman for human rights, Tatyana Moskalkova, formally asked the Trump administration to pardon Yaroshenko, but this was rejected. Yaroshenko remains behind bars in a Connecticut facility.
In 2017, Roman Seleznyov, a hacker known by the handle Track2, was sentenced to 27 years in prison for his crimes, which largely involved identity and credit card theft. The U.S. Justice Department claimed that Seleznyov’s crimes had cost American small businesses and financial institutions more than $169 million in damages. He is currently serving his sentence at a federal correctional facility in Butner, North Carolina.
A cursory examination of the three cases shows that all three men were convicted of serious crimes.
As noted by TASS, Ryabkov called for these individuals to be exchanged for American citizens currently incarcerated in Russia.
“The options and proposals we offered the Americans, unfortunately, have garnered no response," Ryabkov said.
Russia has already proposed several schemes for a prisoner swap involving these same convicts. In 2017, Ryabkov floated the possibility of trading 13 American nationals for Yaroshenko alone. The Daily Beast asked Russian political scientist Sergey Markov why the Kremlin was so eager to get Yaroshenko back, and Markov told them Yaroshenko had connections to Russia’s “special services.”
Seventeen American citizens are currently serving terms in Russian prisons, while some 100 Russians are jailed in the U.S., the Russian foreign ministry said on June 17.
Russia’s foreign prisoners include Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who has citizenship of several other countries besides the U.S. He was arrested in Russia in 2018 while attending a friend’s wedding and later convicted of espionage, a charge he denies. Russian authorities alleged that he received a thumb drive with classified material on it from an acquaintance he met during his trip. Whelan claimed the man had told him the drive contained his vacation photos.
In July 2020, a Russian court sentenced another former U.S. Marine, Trevor Reed, to nine years in prison for allegedly assaulting a police officer. Reed, then 29 years old, was visiting his Russian girlfriend when her colleagues invited him to a party shortly before his planned return flight. After a bout of drinking, Reed began to feel unwell, and was taken by police to their station, where he was interrogated by Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) personnel. The FSB operatives, and later a Russian court, alleged that Reed had “endangered” the lives of the policemen who had brought him in. However, no evidence for this was presented during his trial, and his alleged “victims,” the police officers, could not recall the event.
Ryabkov, who in May denied that Moscow and Washington had discussed a prisoner exchange, was quoted in the July 13 TASS article as saying it was too early to speak of any progress on the issue. He accused Washington of seeking “unilateral concessions,” but did not specify what those were.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the topic of prisoner exchanges during their summit in Geneva on June 16. The previous month, Biden had called for Russia to release Reed and Whelan. However, neither Biden nor Putin provided any details about their discussion of this issue.