Russia releases US Marine veteran in prisoner exchange

ERIC TUCKER and MATTHEW LEE
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Russia and the United States have carried out a dramatic prisoner exchange, trading a Marine veteran jailed in Moscow for a convicted Russian drug trafficker serving a long prison sentence in America, both countries announced Wednesday.

The surprise deal involving Trevor Reed, an American jailed for nearly three years, would have been a notable diplomatic maneuver even in times of peace, but it was all the more extraordinary because it was done as Russia's war with Ukraine has driven relations with the U.S. to their lowest point in decades.

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"Today, our prayers have been answered and Trevor is on his way back safely to the United States," Reed's family said in a statement.

President Joe Biden, who met in Washington with Reed's parents last month, trumpeted Reed's release and noted without elaboration that "the negotiations that allowed us to bring Trevor home required difficult decisions that I do not take lightly." The Russian foreign ministry described the exchange as the "result of a long negotiation process."

Multiple other Americans still remain jailed in Russia, including WNBA star Brittney Griner and Michigan corporate security executive Paul Whelan.

Reed, a former Marine from Texas, was arrested in the summer of 2019 after Russian authorities said he assaulted an officer while being driven by police to a police station following a night of heavy drinking. He was later sentenced to nine years in prison, though his family has maintained his innocence and the U.S. government described him as unjustly detained and expressed concern about his declining health.

The U.S. agreed to return Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a 20-year federal prison 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.

Russia had sought Yaroshenko's return for years while also rejecting entreaties by high-level U.S. officials to release Reed, who was nearing his 1,000th day in custody and whose health had recently been worsening, according to his family.

A senior U.S. official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter by name and spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity, described Reed's case as one of "utmost priority" for the Biden administration, including because of his health, which his family has said included a tuberculosis diagnosis.

FILE - A poster photo of U.S. Marine Corps veteran and Russian prisoner Trevor Reed stands in Lafayette Park near the White House, March 30, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

"It was a difficult decision but one that we thought was worth it," the official said.

The two prisoners were swapped in a European country. Though officials would not say where the transfer took place, in the hours before it happened commercial flight trackers identified a plane belonging to Russia's federal security service as 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 en route back to the U.S., traveling with Roger Cartsens, the U.S. government's special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.

The prisoner swap marks the highest-profile release during the Biden administration of an American deemed wrongly detained abroad and comes even as families of detainees who have met over the last year with administration officials had described them as cool to the idea of an exchange.

The U.S. government does not typically embrace such exchanges for fear that it might encourage foreign governments to take additional Americans as prisoners as a way to extract concessions and to avoid a potential false equivalency between an unjustly detained American — which U.S. officials believe Reed was — and a properly convicted criminal.

In this case, though, the U.S. official said the deal made sense in part because Yaroshenko had already served a long portion of his prison sentence, which has now been commuted.

The Reed family thanked Biden "for making the decision to bring Trevor home" as well as other administration officials and Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, whom the family said traveled to Moscow in the hours before the Ukraine war began in hopes of securing Reed's release.

The Reed family had also been working with a consultant, Jonathan Franks, who has been involved in other recent high-profile releases, including the case of Michael White, a Navy veteran freed from Iran in 2020.

The release had no immediate impact on the cases of other Americans held by Russia. Those include Griner, who was detained in February after authorities said a search of her bag revealed a cannabis derivative, and Whelan, who is being held on espionage-related charges his family says are bogus.

U.S. officials have described Whelan as unjustly detained, and Biden said Wednesday that "we won't stop until Paul Whelan and others join Trevor in the loving arms of family and friends."