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Russia Releases Former U.S. Marine in Prisoner Swap

WASHINGTON — A plane carrying former Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico and his team landed in Moscow the day before the invasion of Ukraine in February. Their mission: to discuss the possibility of a prisoner swap that could free Trevor R. Reed, an ailing former U.S. Marine held for two years on what his family considered to be bogus charges of assault.

Shuttled to the country on a jet owned by Frederick W. Smith, the chief executive of FedEx and a former Marine himself, Mr. Richardson’s group could not have arrived at a more tense moment. Even as they quietly met with members of the Russian government, President Vladimir V. Putin announced the beginning of his invasion of Ukraine and bombs began falling. Publicly, relations between the United States and Russia were crumbling.

But the secret visit by Mr. Richardson, a former ambassador to the United Nations who has spent years working to secure hostage releases through his nonprofit organization, was part of months of quiet but intense diplomacy that ended with the simultaneous release on Wednesday of Mr. Reed and Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot sentenced to a lengthy prison term in the United States on cocaine trafficking charges.

President Biden announced Mr. Reed’s freedom in a statement, calling it “good news” even as he alluded to the release of Mr. Yaroshenko, saying the negotiation “required difficult decisions that I do not take lightly.”

Mr. Richardson said on CNN on Wednesday that he believed Mr. Biden was moved by the humanitarian need to secure Mr. Reed’s release. Family members said he was suffering from active tuberculosis while in detention in Russia.

But Mr. Biden’s decision to approve the prisoner swap also came after weeks of intense public pressure from Mr. Reed’s parents, who initially criticized the president for refusing to meet with them about their son’s case.

Mr. Biden called them on the phone in early March after the couple stood on the side of the road in Texas and waved as the presidential motorcade drove by on the way to an event about veterans. Three weeks later, in late March, Mr. Biden invited the couple into the White House for a brief conversation after they protested outside the building.

That public pressure gained momentum as the war in Ukraine intensified, raising concerns that the deteriorating relationship between the United States and Russia would make a breakthrough less likely. In fact, American officials and Mr. Richardson said the fighting in Ukraine did not appear to hamper Russia’s willingness to discuss the swap.

Mr. Reed was initially detained by Russian authorities in August 2019. His family had increasingly expressed concern about his health while he was in detention, and footage aired on Wednesday by Russian state-run television showed what appeared to be a visibly gaunt Mr. Reed being escorted to a Russian plane at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport. Mr. Reed’s father, Joey Reed, told CNN that his son had been flown to Turkey, where the exchange took place.

A native of Texas, Mr. Reed traveled to Russia in May 2019 to visit his Russian girlfriend, whom he had met on a dating website, and to take language lessons. One week before his planned return to the United States, he went to a party at a park outside Moscow, where he drank extensive amounts of vodka.

Mr. Reed then got agitated, prompting his girlfriend and friends to call the police. Officers who arrived at the scene decided to take him to a police station, where he was interviewed by Russian security agents. Shortly after, he was accused of assaulting and endangering the lives of the two police officers who had driven him there.

After spending more than 11 months in a Russian jail, Mr. Reed was sentenced to nine years in prison, the first time that such a severe punishment had been applied for that type of crime, his lawyers said. During one hearing, Mr. Reed said the case against him was political and linked his troubles in Russia to his military affiliation.

While in a penal colony in the Russian republic of Mordovia, Mr. Reed was subjected to degrading treatment, including time in a solitary cell, his family has said. His health rapidly deteriorated, his family said, and he was not allowed to call home or to receive books or letters, prompting him to begin a hunger strike in November.

Mr. Reed’s family said in a statement on Wednesday that they would now concentrate on “the myriad of health issues brought on by the squalid conditions he was subjected to in his Russian gulag.”

The agreement involving Mr. Reed was the result of “lengthy negotiations,” according to Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Credit…Artyom Geodakyan/Tass, via Alamy

Mr. Yaroshenko, 53, is a Russian pilot who worked occasional jobs in Africa. In 2010, in connection with a foiled plot to fly cocaine to Liberia and Ghana from South America. American authorities said he had participated in the plot with the knowledge that some of the drugs would wind up in the United States.

Mr. Yaroshenko, who had never before set foot in the United States, was deported to the country to and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Lawyers and families have accused Russia of arresting Mr. Reed and Mr. Whelan, the other former U.S. Marine, specifically for the purpose of exchanging them for Russians held in American prisons.

Russia has been seeking the release of a number of its citizens in the United States, including , who was convicted by an American court of arms dealing and sentenced in 2012 to 25 years in prison, and Roman Seleznev, a Russian hacker who was arrested in the Maldives and later for running a vast credit card and identity theft operation.

While Mr. Bout was a notorious criminal and Moscow has been protective of hackers as long as they do not target the Kremlin’s own interests, Mr. Yaroshenko was a low-profile figure before his arrest.

His case, however, has been cited by Russian politicians and pro-Kremlin news media outlets as a prime example of the brazen use of extraterritorial powers by the United States. Mr. Yaroshenko’s family has said he was ill-treated when he was imprisoned in Connecticut.

The prisoner swap renewed optimism for the release of Ms. Griner, 31, the W.N.B.A. player who has been held in Russia on drug charges that could carry a sentence of up to 10 years if she is convicted.

Ms. Griner’s family and those working for her release have about her case, following advice from those who have dealt with other cases of high-profile American athletes who have been detained overseas.

Adam Goldman and Jonathan Abrams contributed reporting.

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