The worst possible time to bring Trevor Reed home turned out to be the best.
With US-Russian relations at their lowest in decades, now seemed an unlikely time to hope for the release of Reed, a former Marine held in Russia for nearly three years. Yet this week, the Biden administration made the kind of deal it had previously seemed reluctant to do, swapping Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot and convicted drug dealer serving a 20-year prison sentence in Connecticut.
A series of events and considerations over the past two months helped facilitate the exchange, including escalating concerns about Reed’s health, a private Oval Office meeting between her parents and President Joe Biden, and a secret trip to Moscow of a former diplomat at the dawn of the Russian war. with Ukraine.
“All three of these forced the White House to make a decision they hadn’t made before,” said Mickey Bergman, vice president of the Richardson Center for Global Engagement.
How the war – and the breakdown of US-Russian relations – affected the deal is unclear. US officials stressed that negotiations for Reed’s release were narrow in scope, focused squarely on prisoners and not Russia’s war, and did not reflect any broader diplomatic engagement. But while the timing of the agreement was surprising, it is also clear that the groundwork had been laid before the conflict began.
“I did it,” Biden told reporters Wednesday of the deal. “I raised him. I brought it up three months ago.
Just as the war was about to begin, Bergman and his colleague, Bill Richardson, former US ambassador to the United Nations and former governor of New Mexico, flew to Moscow on the FedEx chief executive’s plane, Fred Smith, for a meeting with the Russian government. officials. It was a follow-up to negotiations they had had for the release of Reed and another imprisoned American, corporate security officer Paul Whelan.
They left with the outlines in place for the one-for-one exchange that eventually took place.
In Texas, Joey and Paula Reed feared that Russia’s war on Ukraine, and the resulting tensions with the United States, would block lines of communication and prevent any common ground for negotiations. In meetings with administration officials last year — including with the Justice Department, which has prosecuted Yaroshenko — the couple expressed support for a swap, but said they had not been led me to think that was a viable option.
“They didn’t say, ‘Oh, we agree with you, that’s a lot. That’s a good point,” Paula Reed said in a February interview with The Associated Press. “They said no such thing. They just said, ‘We hear you. Thanks very much.'”
But weeks after the war began, the couple did something that caught the attention of the White House.
As Biden traveled to Texas to support veterans, the Reeds stood along the motorcade route hoping for a meaningful face-to-face with the president. This did not happen, although he spoke on the phone with the couple. Later that month, they arrived in Washington and stood with signs near the White House, hoping to meet the president again.
This time, they were invited into the Oval Office for a meeting with Biden and other administration officials. The White House issued a statement that evening reiterating its commitment to bringing Reed and Whelan home, an issue senior officials had raised in private meetings with Russian leaders.
The reunion was rare presidential access for the family of an American detainee, especially since Biden himself has been less public than his predecessor, Donald Trump, about efforts to bring Americans home. Behind the scenes, however, Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken were raising the cases with the Russians, and Roger Carstens, the presidential special envoy for hostage affairs, was also working on the issue.
In the background hovered Reed’s health. In March, Reed told his parents he was coughing up blood several times a day, had pain in his lungs and had a broken rib. Last year, he contracted COVID-19. Even on Wednesday, his parents were taken aback by how skinny their son was during video footage of the transfer. They said they expected he would need medical attention before resuming his daily life in Texas.
Paula Reed told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that Trevor was getting tested, and his sister, Taylor, said his “mind was brilliant.”
“He tells stories,” she says. “He flirts with the nursing staff. It’s good. It’s great to see.
His health problems also alarmed US officials.
“That, I think, really helped to speed up the conversations on this issue, to get to a point where we were able to make this arrangement, to a point where we were able to turn to some of the logistics to just do it. “, a senior administration official told reporters during a briefing this week.
Separately, a lawyer for Yaroshenko said his client also suffered from multiple health issues and had previously unsuccessfully tried to get him released early from prison on compassionate grounds due to the pandemic.
Whelan, who is serving a 16-year sentence on espionage-related charges her family say is fabricated, and Brittney Griner, a WNBA star detained in February after Russian authorities said a search of her bag revealed a derivative cannabis.
The Whelan family said in a statement that they were happy for Reed’s release but troubled that their loved one was not a part of it.
“Paul has already spent 3 and a quarter years as a Russian hostage,” the statement read. “Is President Biden’s failure to bring Paul home an admission that some cases are too difficult to solve? Is the administration’s piecemeal approach reaping low-hanging fruit? »
Richardson, who has helped facilitate several releases of American detainees and hostages in recent years, said the Biden team deserves credit for allowing this particular exchange at a time when US-Russian relations were so weak. .
“It doesn’t matter who gets the credit,” Richardson said, “as long as hostages like Trevor Reed are home.”
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