As war in Ukraine rages on, U.S. and Russia exchange prisoners

The U.S. and Russia on Wednesday agreed to a prisoner exchange. U.S. Marine Trevor Reed boarded a plane back home after a 2019 arrest in Moscow for allegedly assaulting police officers. He was traded for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot convicted in a U.S. court of drug trafficking. State Department spokesman Ned Price joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    And now, for more on that prisoner swap and other Americans held in Russia, I'm joined by State Department spokesperson Ned Price.

    Ned Price, welcome back to the "NewsHour." Thanks for joining us.

    I want to ask you first about the timing of that swap, because Trevor Reed had been held by the Russians for almost three years, right? Yaroshenko had been in prison here in the U.S. for many, many years. So why today? What made this trade possible?

  • Ned Price, State Department Spokesman:

    Well, ever since this administration came into office, Amna, we have had a commitment to secure the release of those Americans who are unjustly detained around the world.

    We have done that in cases in Venezuela and Haiti and Burma and now, as of today, in Russia. Because of months of behind-the-scenes discussions, Trevor Reed is on a plane en route to see his family back in the United States, to be reunited with them for — after nearly three years of separation.

    This is something that we have worked on for quite some time. As you have heard, the president was presented with a difficult decision, but it's a decision he decided to make, because Trevor has been held apart from his family for far too long. His health, his deteriorating health was a source of great concern for us. And so, as a result of what the president decided, Trevor Reed is now headed home.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me ask you about some of those other Americans who are still in Russian custody, then.

    They include Paul Whelan, who has been accused by Russia of spying. He's been held since 2018, Brittney Griner, of course, the WNBA star who was held since February, also people like Vladimir Kara-Murza, right, who's a Russian citizen, but a green card holder here in the U.S. His wife and his kids are Americans.

    Did any of their names come up in these talks or any other potential trades or swaps in the works?

  • Ned Price:

    We're always working to secure the release of Americans who are held unjustly around the world. And that includes in Russia.

    I should say that, today, we had a successful outcome in the case of Trevor Reed, but our work isn't finished. Far from it. We're continuing to do everything we can to see the successful and prompt release of Paul Whelan. It's something we have called for, for months and months now.

    We're doing everything we can to support Brittney Griner, to see to it that we have regular consular access to her. A senior embassy official was able to visit her in recent weeks. We're continuing to work with the Russian government on her case to see to it that we have regular, consistent access to her, and that she is being treated fairly and being afforded due process.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But, Ned, did any of their names come up? I mean, could this be a model for their release? Are there other swaps in the works?

  • Ned Price:

    Well, again, each case is unique. So I don't want to compare one individual to the case of someone else.

    But we are always working around the clock to see the release of Americans who are unjustly detained.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me ask you about another American who's actually in custody in Afghanistan. That is U.S. contractor Mark Frerichs. He's been kidnapped and held there since 2020.

    The U.S. withdrew without negotiating his release. And the Taliban seemed to want a similar swap there. They want the release of an Afghan drug trafficker who's in U.S. custody, and they say they will release Mark Frerichs. And the family says they want that done. Even lawmakers like Senator Tammy Duckworth say they should do the deal.

    So why hasn't the U.S. done that deal and freed Mark Frerichs?

  • Ned Price:

    Well, we're speaking regularly with the family. We're speaking regularly with the lawmakers.

    And, frankly, we're speaking regularly with the Taliban. And the message we're sending to the Taliban is a simple one. You cannot have improved relations with the United States as long as you continue to hold an American hostage. That's precisely what they're doing.

    We have — every engagement we have with the Taliban, we make that message very clear to them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So you're saying that deal won't be done to free him, then? The U.S. will not free that drug trafficker to free Mark Frerichs from Afghanistan?

  • Ned Price:

    I'm saying that we are working on his case around the clock, just as we are with other Americans who are unjustly detained or held hostage around the world.

    The same Ambassador Carstens who today was there and instrumental in the successful release of Trevor Reed is working this case. Tom West, who's our special envoy for Afghanistan, is working this case. We are going to continue to do everything we responsibly can to see to it that Mark too is soon promptly reunited with his family.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ned, you and I are talking at a time that there's actually been an increase in wrongful detention of Americans overseas by states, by other nations, right, not terrorist or militant groups.

    There are more than 40 Americans wrongfully detained overseas right now. Are you concerned at all that any one of these swaps or trades encourages other nations to detain Americans more, knowing they can hold on to them for leverage for future swaps?

  • Ned Price:

    Amna, you have to evaluate each case on its merits. And the merits of this case were compelling.

    You had an American who was unjustly detained for nearly three years, an American whose health was failing, who wasn't receiving the medical attention that he needed at the time. And so the president was confronted with a difficult decision. And, because of that, Trevor Reed is now on his way home.

    What we're doing with our partners and allies around the world is trying to establish and then to reinforce a norm against taking private citizens, foreign citizens hostage as political pawns. You're absolutely right that we have seen states do this, whether it's Russia, whether it's Iran, whether it is Venezuela, whether it is other countries around the world.

    We're going to be very clear that there will be consequences for this, that nothing can be gained from the taking of individuals, of third-party — third-country nationals and trying to use them as pawns. The Canadian government has been an instrumental partner in this, but it's something we're working with partners around the world to reinforce.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is State Department spokesperson Ned Price joining us tonight.

    Ned, thank you so much for your time.

  • Ned Price:

    Thanks, Amna. Appreciate it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And our Nick Schifrin has just learned from senior administration officials that Trevor Reed's cellmate died of tuberculosis and that Reed was coughing up blood before his release.

    Also, American prisoner Paul Whelan's captors reportedly awaken him every few hours around the clock. And the case of American basketball star Brittney Griner is moving — quote — "very slowly."

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