The US government offered to send Russia two cybercriminals together with arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for jailed Marine Paul Whelan who would have joined the basketball star Brittney Griner on the journey back West. But Moscow rejected the proposal.
As The Washington Post first reported, the Kremlin decided to keep Whelan behind bars in Russia and refused to expand the swap so that the cybercriminals, Alexander Vinnik and Roman Seleznev, could return home, too.
Griner and Bout were swapped and returned to their home countries on December 8, after an exchange at an airport in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Moscow’s refusal to include the two Russian cyberthugs in the swap certainly raises some questions about how much the Kremlin actually values such criminals. Yet Russia clearly wanted to keep the Whelan card in hand, especially since its war on Ukraine is ongoing.
However, the swap of Griner and Bout is already being portrayed as quite scandalous in some US media circles, especially among right-wingers – even though their favourite American president, Donald Trump, did nothing to help Whelan, according to his brother.
The Joe Biden administration, already under attack, might have felt that the release of the Russian cybercriminals would have gotten a similar reception.
After all, it’s extremely hard to convict and extradite overseas cybercriminals. And as the US prosecutors worked patiently for a long time to imprison the Russians, their release back to the homeland would have ignited a lot of frustration.
Vinnik, for instance, only arrived in the US in August after he was extradited from Greece, where he was arrested in 2017 at the request of the US government.
The Justice Department (DOJ) charged him on 21 counts for allegedly operating the cryptocurrency exchange BTC-e, which the DOJ calls a “significant cybercrime and online money laundering entity.” Vinnik could face 50 years in American prison.
Seleznev, son of a member of Russia’s parliament, has been in the US for longer. After the Secret Service detained him in 2014 in Guam, Moscow furiously accused Washington of “kidnapping” Seleznev, but, in 2017, he was sentenced to 27 years in prison over hacking, bank fraud, and identity theft.
The DOC said Seleznev hacked into retail systems and installed malware to steal millions of credit card numbers from more than 500 U.S. businesses. In total, he stole more than $169 million.
According to the Washington Post, Russia reportedly rejected the offers to include Whelan in a swap because it charged him with espionage and only would consider a spy-for-spy trade – even though many of the Russian hackers are seen by the US government as essentially spies.
However, Vinnik’s French lawyer told CNN that his client could still become a part of a possible future deal for Whelan. “They make part of the possible ‘candidates’ for the next swap,” Frédéric Bélot said.
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