The Russians made a request to the United States earlier this month through an informal back channel used by the spy agency known as the FSB, the sources said, that they wanted Vadim Krasikov released. Krasikov was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in December for the 2019 murder of former Chechen fighter Zelimkhan “Tornik” Kongoshvili in Berlin’s Kleiner Tiergarten.
The request was seen as problematic for a number of reasons, the sources told CNN, not least of which is that Krasikov is in German custody. Therefore, the US government did not consider the request to be a formal protest to the US offer, which was first revealed by CNN on Wednesday, as the request was not formally communicated, but instead sent through the FSB backchannel.
But underscoring how determined the Biden administration is to bring Kreiner and Whelan back to the U.S., U.S. officials have quietly asked the Germans whether they would be willing to include Kraszko in a trade, a senior German government source told CNN. A U.S. official said he had checked Krasiko’s condition.
The talks were never escalated to the highest level of the German government and were not seriously considered, including Krasikov in a potential trade, the German source said. But the previously undisclosed discussions reveal that Russian officials are somewhat engaged with the U.S. proposal.
Although the request was not made through formal channels, the FSB has extensive cash and is an important part of the Russian security apparatus. Russian President Vladimir Putin famously worked for its powerful predecessor, the KGB.
Adrian Watson, a spokesman for the National Security Council, told CNN after the story broke, “Holding two Americans hostage to release a Russian assassin into the custody of a third country is not a serious counter-offer. It’s bad. It’s a good-faith attempt to avoid a deal on the table that Russia needs to take.”
When asked for comment, a State Department official told CNN, “To preserve the best chance of a successful outcome, we’re not going to comment publicly on any speculation.” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said Wednesday that the United States put “a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago” to facilitate the release of Griner and Whelan. “Our governments have been in direct contact repeatedly about that proposal,” he said.
“I pressed the Kremlin to accept the substantial proposal we put forward in the publication of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner,” Blinken added.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Lavrov “strongly recommended” to Blinken that the United States return to a “calm diplomatic” method of possible prisoner exchanges “without the imposition of speculative information.”
It’s not clear if Krasikov was discussed on the call.
Even without Krasikov, multiple sources told CNN that the Russians would demand the release of two prisoners in exchange for Griner and Whelan. Russian government officials have publicly indicated in recent weeks that they want to see Bout and Roman Seleznev released
“I am not sure that any further action, especially in the public sector, will help us find a proper, balanced compromise and find a basis to alleviate the fate of many comrades like Victor Bode with health problems. [or] Chelesnev and others,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters earlier this month.
But U.S. officials believe Russia is trying to buy time by making serious concessions until the investigation into Kreiner is over.
Griner was accused of entering Russia in February with marijuana in his luggage, which he said he used for pain relief and accidentally stuffed in his bags. Whalen was convicted of espionage in 2020 and sentenced to 16 years in prison. The State Department has declared that both of them have been wrongfully detained.
CNN’s Jennifer Hansler and Sam Fossum contributed reporting.
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