By Humeyra Pamuk and Simon Lewis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – American Trevor Reed, a former US Marine detained since 2019, was released from Russia in exchange for Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was serving a 20-year sentence in the United States, both countries said on Wednesday.
The surprise swap, which US officials have said was the result of months of hard and careful work, comes at a time when ties between the United States and Russia have been at their worst in the decades over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Reed, 30, from Texas, was on his way to be reunited with his family in the United States, senior Biden administration officials told reporters in a call, adding that he was in “good spirits.”
President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed Reed’s release and said they were working to free another US citizen held in Russia, Paul Whelan.
“Trevor, a former US Marine, is free from Russian detention,” Biden said in a statement.
Reed was convicted in Russia in 2019 of endangering the lives of two police officers while drunk on a visit to Moscow. The United States has called his trial a “theater of the absurd.”
Russia had proposed a prisoner swap for Yaroshenko in July 2019 in exchange for the release of any American national. Yaroshenko is a pilot convicted of conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the country. He was arrested by US special forces in Liberia in 2010.
The talks that led Reed’s release strictly focused on securing his freedom and was not the start of a broader conversation, senior administration officials said.
“We’re strictly limited to these topics, the detainee topics. They were not part of broader diplomatic discussions. They were not the beginnings of discussions on other issues,” one of the officials said.
Biden said he had shared the news with Reed’s parents, Joey and Paula Reed, who have been pressing his administration to help their son.
The Reeds thanked Biden and others, saying “our family has been living a nightmare” for the past 985 days.
“The president’s action may have saved Trevor’s life,” they said in a statement.
They said their son would tell his own story as soon as he was ready.
“We’d respectfully ask for some privacy while we address the myriad of health issues brought on by the squalid conditions he was subjected to in his Russian gulag,” they said.
Biden did not comment on details of the release, but said, “The negotiations that allowed us to bring Trevor home required difficult decisions that I do not take lightly.”
Biden met with Reed’s parents at the White House on March 30. In a statement the following week, the parents said that a prisoner swap seemed to be the only way to bring Reed home in the short term and urged the White House to take all possible steps to bring home their son.
Biden said his administration has put a priority on bringing home Americans wrongfully detained abroad and that “we won’t stop until Paul Wheland and others join Trevor in the loving arms of family and friends.”
Whelan is a former US Marine held in Russia on spying charges that he denies and that he has likened to a political kidnapping.
In addition, American basketball player Brittney Griner has been held nearly two months in Russia and faces up to 10 years in prison. Griner was detained at a Moscow airport on Feb. 17 when a search of her luggage allegedly revealed multiple cannabis oil vape cartridges, which could result in a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
Russian news agencies reported on April 4 that Reed had ended a hunger strike and was being treated in his prison’s medical center. The prison service said Reed had gone on hunger strike on March 28 to protest disciplinary action against him.
Reed’s parents said at the time he had been exposed to an inmate with active tuberculosis in December, but their son had not been tested for the illness despite a rapid deterioration in his health. The prison service said at the time he had repeatedly tested negative for tuberculosis and had not come into contact with anyone infected.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Simon Lewis, Doina Chiacu, Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington; editing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Will Dunham and Chizu Nomiyama)