Russia is hoping to make a prisoner swap with the US that could see basketball star Brittney Griner freed - in return for a convicted arms trafficker known as the "Merchant of Death."
Moscow and Washington are currently exploring a possible exchange, Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Friday.
Talks of Prisoner Swap are 'Strengthening'
The Russian news agency Interfax reported Friday that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters that the Kremlin hopes the chances of the United States and Russia reaching a deal on arms dealer Viktor Bout are "strengthening."
"I hope that the prospect is not just preserved, it is strengthening, and the moment will come when we will get a concrete agreement from the perspective," Ryabkov said.
"The Americans are showing some external activity, we are working professionally through a special channel designed for this," he said. "Viktor Bout is among those who are being discussed, and we certainly count on a positive result."
Griner Sentenced to 9 Years in Prison
The news comes days after Griner was transferred to a penal colony in Mordovia, which is about 300 miles southeast of Moscow, to start her nine-year prison sentence.
The WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medal winner was detained in February when customs agents said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport.
Griner was then arrested just days before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The U.S. has denounced her imprisonment as illegitimate and called on Russia to release her immediately.
At her trial, Griner admitted having the canisters in her luggage, but testified she packed them inadvertently in haste to make her flight and had no criminal intent. Her defence team presented written statements saying she had been prescribed cannabis to treat chronic pain. She was convicted in August.
Swap Deal to Include Paul Whelan
The potential deal might also include Paul Whelan – a former U.S. marine arrested at a Moscow hotel in 2018 on espionage charges. In 2020, he received a 16-year prison sentence.
The Biden administration has been working to free Griner and Whelan by reaching a deal with Russia, but it has yet to be successful in securing their release.
Russia has previously signaled that it wants the U.S. to release Bout, who was convicted of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens, deliver anti-aircraft missiles and aid a terrorist organization a decade ago. He is serving a 25-year prison sentence.