The worst possible time to bring Trevor Reed home turned out to be the best.
With US-Russian relations at their lowest point in decades, it seemed like an impossible time to wait. the cane throw, a former marine detained in Russia for nearly three years. Yet this week the Biden administration completed the kind of transaction it previously seemed resistant to, swapping Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot and convicted drug dealer serving a 20-year prison sentence in the United States.
A series of events and considerations over the past two months helped facilitate the exchange, including growing concerns about Reed’s health, a private Oval Office meeting between his parents and President Joe Biden and a secret trip to Moscow by a former diplomat at the top of Russia’s war with Ukraine.
“Those three 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.
It is not clear how the war, and the breakdown in relations between the United States and Russia, affected the agreement. US officials stressed that the negotiations for Reed’s release were limited in scope, focused directly on the prisoners and not the war in Russia, and did not reflect any broader diplomatic engagement. But while the timing of the deal was surprising, the groundwork had been laid before the conflict began.
“I did it,” Biden told reporters Wednesday of the deal. “I picked it up. I brought it up three months ago.
Just as the war was about to begin, Bergman and his colleague, Bill Richardson, a former US ambassador to the United Nations and a former governor of New Mexico, flew to Moscow on FedEx CEO Fred Smith’s plane to meet with the Russian government. officials. It was a continuation of negotiations they had been having for the release of Reed and another imprisoned American, corporate security executive 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 worried that Russia’s war with Ukraine and the resulting tensions with the US might shut down channels of communication and prevent any common ground for negotiations. During meetings with administration officials in the past year, including with the Justice Department, which prosecuted Yaroshenko, the couple have expressed support for a swap but say they were not led to think it 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 didn’t say anything about it. They just said, ‘We hear you. Many thanks.'”
But weeks after the war, 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 to have some meaningful time with the president. That did not happen, although he did speak to the couple on the phone. Later that month, they arrived in Washington and stood with signs near the White House, hoping to meet with the president again.
This time, they were invited into the Oval Office to sit down with Biden and other administration officials. The White House issued a statement that night reiterating his commitment to bring Reed and Whelan home, an issue top officials had raised in private meetings with Russian leaders.
The meeting was a rare presidential outing 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 March, Reed told his parents that he had been coughing up blood several times a day, had lung pain and a broken rib. Last year, he contracted COVID-19. Even on Wednesday, his parents were shocked by how skinny his son looked during video footage of the transfer. They said they hoped he would need medical attention before resuming his daily life in Texas.
Reed’s failing health “really helped to escalate the conversations on this issue, getting to a point where we were able to make this arrangement, getting to a point where we were able to go through some of the logistics of just doing it.” a senior administration official told reporters at a briefing this week.
Separately, a lawyer for Yaroshenko said his client suffered from multiple health problems and tried unsuccessfully in 2020 to have him released before his 20-year prison sentence on compassionate release grounds due to the pandemic.