How the US convinced Russia to release Trevor Reed

The worst possible moment for bringing Trevor Reed home turned out to be the best.

With United States-Russian relations at their lowest point in decades, it seemed an impossible time to hope for the release of Reed, a former Marine detained in Russia for almost three years. Yet this week the Biden administration completed the type of transaction it had earlier seemed resistant to, exchanging Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot and convicted drug trafficker serving a 20-year US prison sentence.

A series of events and considerations in the last two months helped facilitate the swap, including escalating concerns about Reed’s health, a private Oval Office meeting between his parents and President Joe Biden and a secretive Moscow trip by a former diplomat on the cusp of Russia’s war with Ukraine.

“All those three forced the White House to make a decision that they hadn’t made before,” said Mickey Bergman, vice president at the Richardson Center for Global Engagement.

How the war – and the breakdown in US-Russian relations – affected the deal is not clear. US officials stressed that the negotiations for Reed’s release were narrow in scope, focused squarely on the prisoners and not on Russia’s war and not reflective of any broader diplomatic engagement. But while the timing of the deal was startling, the groundwork for it had been laid before the conflict had begun.

“I did it,” Biden told reporters on Wednesday about the deal. “I raised it. I raised it three months ago.”

Just as the war was about to commence, Bergman and his colleague, Bill Richardson, a former US ambassador to the United Nations and ex-New Mexico governor, flew to Moscow on the plane of FedEx chief executive Fred Smith for a meeting with Russian government officials. It was a continuation of negotiations they’d been having for the release of Reed and another jailed American, corporate security executive Paul Whelan.

They left with the contours in place for the one-for-one swap that ultimately took place.

In Texas, Joey and Paula Reed were worrying that Russia’s war with Ukraine, and resulting tensions with the US, could close off communication channels and prevent any common ground for negotiations. During meetings with administration officials in the last year — including with the Department of Justice, which prosecuted Yaroshenko — the couple expressed support for a swap but say they were not led to think that was a viable option.

“They didn’t say: ‘Oh, we agree with you, that’s a great deal. That’s a good point,’” Paula Reed said in a February interview with The Associated Press. “They didn’t say anything like that. They just said: ‘We hear you. Thank you very much.’”

But weeks into the war, the couple did something that got the White House’s attention.

As Biden travelled to Texas to support veterans, the Reeds stood along the motorcade route in hopes of getting meaningful face-time with the president. That did not happen, though he did speak by phone with the couple. Later that month, they arrived in Washington and stood with signs near the White House, hoping again to meet with the president.

Joey and Paula Reed pose for a photo with a portrait of their son Marine veteran and Russian prisoner Trevor Reed at their home in Fort Worth, Texas [File: LM Otero/AP Photo]

This time, they were invited into the Oval Office for a sit-down with Biden and other administration officials. The White House issued a statement that night reiterating its commitment to getting Reed and Whelan home, an issue that senior officials had raised in private meetings with Russian leaders.

The meeting was a rare bit of presidential access for the family of an American detainee, especially since Biden himself has been less public than his predecessor, Donald Trump, about efforts to get Americans home. Behind the scenes, though, Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken were raising the cases with the Russians, and Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, was working on the issue as well.

In March, Reed told his parents that he had been coughing up blood several times a day, had pain in his lung and a broken rib. Last year, he contracted COVID-19. Even on Wednesday, his parents were taken aback by how thin their son looked during video footage of the transfer. They said they expected that he would need medical care before resuming his daily life in Texas.

Reed’s poor health “contributed to really ratcheting up 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 turn to some of the logistics of simply getting it done”, a senior administration official told reporters in a background briefing this week.

Separately, a lawyer for Yaroshenko has said his client suffered from multiple health problems, and tried unsuccessfully in 2020 to have him freed early from his 20-year prison sentence on compassionate release grounds because of the pandemic.

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