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Yes, the U.S. has swapped prisoners with Russia before

One of the first major prisoner exchanges with Russia was in 1962. The exchange was depicted in the 2015 film “The Bridge of Spies.”

Story update Aug. 4, 2022: This story has been updated with the latest developments in the Russian case against WNBA player Brittney Griner. Griner was convicted and sentenced in a Russian courtroom on Aug. 4.

The U.S. has offered a deal to Russia aimed at bringing home WNBA star Brittney Griner and another jailed American, Paul Whelan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on July 27.

Griner was convicted of drug possession and smuggling on August 4 and was sentenced to nine years in prison and fined $1 million rubles, or about $16,700. Whelen was arrested in 2018 for spying and is currently serving a 16-year sentence in a Russian labor camp.

When the announcement was made the U.S. had proposed a trade to Russia prior to Griner’s conviction,, Google Trends data showed people were searching “prisoner swap with Russia” and “US prisoner Russia swap,” suggesting people were looking for the history of prisoner exchanges between the two countries.

The VERIFY team explored the history of prisoner swaps between the U.S. and Russia.

THE QUESTION

Has the U.S. swapped prisoners with Russia before?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is true.

Yes, the U.S. has swapped prisoners with Russia before.

WHAT WE FOUND

Government officials have not offered details of the proposed deal outlined to the Russians, though a person familiar with the matter said the U.S. government has offered to trade convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner.

Russia has not publicly agreed to any deal, and after Griner’s sentencing, President Joe Biden reiterated earlier statements that Russia should free detained Americans.  

“I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates,” Biden said.

On July 27, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby told reporters: “I will say that the President and his team are willing to take extraordinary steps to bring our people home, as we’ve demonstrated with Trevor Reed, and that’s what we’re doing right here.  It’s actively happening now.”

In April 2022, U.S. Marine veteran Trevor Reed was brought back to the U.S. in exchange for a Russian drug trafficker. Reed was swapped in Turkey for Konstantin Yaroshenko, who had been serving a 20-year prison sentence in a cocaine-trafficking conspiracy case.

Prior to that, in 2010, the U.S. released 10 Russian spies and in return, the Russian government released three Russians who spied on behalf of the U.S. or the U.K., and one Russian accused of being a double agent working for both Russia and the U.S. According to the FBI, the Russian spies had assimilated into American society (some by using stolen identities). 

“They married, bought homes, raised children, and held jobs—all while working for Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service,” the FBI said. The spy ring was the inspiration for the television show “The Americans.”

Credit: AP
This combo of ten undated booking photos provided by U.S. Marshals on Thursday July 29, 2010 shows from top left, Cynthia Murphy, whose real name is Lydia Guryev, Patricia Mills whose real name is Natalia Pereverzeva, Anna Chapman, Tracey Lee Ann Foley whose real name is Elena Vavilova, Vicky Pelaez, and bottom, from left, Richard Murphy, born Vladimir Guryev, Michael Zottoli whose real name is Mikhail Kutsik, Mikhail Semenko, Donald Howard Heathfield whose real name is Andrey Bezrukov and Juan Lazaro whose real name is Mikhail Vasenkov. The FBI arrested the ten on June 27 charging them with acting as unregistered foreign agents for Russia. All pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as an unregistered agent of a foreign country. (U.S. Marshals via AP)

Twenty-five years earlier, in June 1985, the U.S. and the then-Soviet Union agreed to the largest-ever prisoner exchange of the time. The U.S. released three spies - one of which was famed Polish spy Marian Zacharski who stole military technology - in exchange for 23 people held by the Russians.

The first major prisoner exchange between Russia and the U.S. was in 1962, with the then-Soviet Union. The exchange took place on the Glienicke Bridge, which at the time linked East and West Germany.

The U.S. released KGB spy Rudolf Abel in return for Air Force pilot Capt. Francis Gary Powers. The KGB was the main security agency for the Soviet Union. After Powers' plane was shot down during a reconnaissance mission, he was captured, sentenced for spying, and held prisoner by the Soviets until his exchange on February 10, 1962. 

A biography on Powers from the National Air and Space Museum said: “Although Captain Powers was criticized at the time (some believing he should have died rather than allow himself to be captured), 1998 declassified documents show that he followed orders by maintaining a cooperative attitude, gave out no secret information, and refused to denounce the United States of America. As a result, Russian intelligence gained no vital information from him.”

American Frederic Pryor, a student at the time in East German custody, was also released as part of that exchange. 

So, we can VERIFY, there has been a long history of prisoner exchanges between Russia and the U.S.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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