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Putin says more US prisoner exchanges are possible after Griner release

Viktor Bout speaks in a Russian plane after a swap, in the airport of Abu Dhabi (RU-24 Russian Television via AP)
Viktor Bout speaks in a Russian plane after a swap, in the airport of Abu Dhabi (RU-24 Russian Television via AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said more US-Russian prisoner exchanges are possible.

Mr Putin spoke a day after Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout was swapped for basketball star and two-time Olympian Brittney Griner.

Asked whether other prisoners could be swapped, Mr Putin replied that “everything is possible”, noting that “compromises have been found” to clear Thursday’s exchange of Griner for Bout.

“We aren’t refusing to continue this work in the future,” he added.

Despite negotiating the swap for Griner, the most high-profile American jailed abroad, the US failed to win freedom for another American, Paul Whelan.

Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive, has been imprisoned in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the US government have said are baseless.

Earlier, Bout, who returned to his homeland after 14 years in a US prison as part of a swap for WNBA star Brittney Griner, said the West is bent on destroying Russia.

The arms dealer, dubbed the “Merchant of Death”, who provided arms for some of the world’s worst conflicts, was seen in Russia as unjustly imprisoned after an overly aggressive US sting operation.

Russian state media hailed his release, carrying the footage of him talking to his family from a private jet following a swap at Abu Dhabi’s airport and then embracing his wife and his mother on a snowy tarmac in Moscow.

Brittney Griner
Two-time Olympic gold medallist Brittney Griner is now back on US soil (AP)

Speaking in an interview for RT channel with Maria Butina, who also served 18 months in a US prison after being convicted of acting as an unregistered foreign agent in the United States, Bout said he was still struggling to control his emotions after his imprisonment.

He said that the West’s long-held objective was to destroy Russia.

“The West believes that it has failed to finish us off when the Soviet Union began to collapse,” Bout said.

“And our efforts to live independently, be an independent power is a shock to them.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the swap was agreed between Russian and US intelligence agencies, and that contacts were held exclusively to hammer out its specifics.

Viktor Bout
Viktor Bout has spent nearly 14 years in jail (AP)

“It has no impact on the overall state of bilateral ties that looks sad,” Mr Peskov said in televised remarks.

US officials said they did not see an immediate path to bringing about Whelan’s release, saying Russia has treated his case differently because of the “sham espionage” charges against him.

Still, they said they believe communication channels with the Russians remain open for negotiations about his freedom.

Mr Peskov said that “special services may continue their work if necessary”, and also noted the role of the UAE and Saudi Arabia in helping broker the swap.