Hello. This is your Russia-Ukraine War Briefing, a weeknight guide to the latest news and analysis about the conflict.
Negotiations are underway between the U.S. and Russia on a prisoner swap that would secure the release of Brittney Griner, the U.S. basketball star on trial in Russia on drug charges.
To win her release and that of another American, Paul Whelan, the U.S. is offering to release Viktor Bout, a leading figure in the murky world of international arms trafficking, according to a person familiar with the negotiations.
Bout is serving a 25-year jail sentence after his conviction in 2011 on four counts of conspiracy, including conspiring to kill American citizens. He is probably the highest-profile Russian in U.S. custody, and Russian officials have pressed for his return since his conviction.
The spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry said today that while negotiations on a deal were ongoing, “no concrete result has been achieved.”
A former officer in the Soviet Air Force, Bout was notorious among American intelligence officials, earning the nickname Merchant of Death as he evaded capture for years. His exploits helped inspire a 2005 film, “Lord of War,” that starred Nicolas Cage.
In 2008, he was taken into custody in Bangkok after being ensnared in a foreign sting operation run by the Drug Enforcement Administration. His extradition to the U.S., which Russian officials strenuously opposed, took more than two and a half years.
His day in court came in 2011: The Federal District Court in Manhattan found Bout guilty of conspiring to sell antiaircraft missiles and other weapons to men he believed were Colombian terrorists intent on killing Americans.
Bout has been accused of selling weapons to Al Qaeda, the Taliban and warring sides in civil wars in Africa.
Our Coverage of the Russia-Ukraine War
- Grain Blockade: A breakthrough deal aims to lift a Russian blockade on Ukrainian grain shipments, easing a global food crisis. But in the fields of Ukraine, farmers are skeptical.
- An Ambitious Counterattack: Ukraine has been laying the groundwork to retake Kherson from Russia. But the endeavor would require huge resources, and could come at a heavy toll.
- Economic Havoc: As food, energy and commodity prices continue to climb around the world, few countries are feeling the bite as much as Ukraine.
- Inside a Siege: For 80 days, at the Avtostal steelworks, a relentless Russian assault met unyielding Ukrainian resistance. This is how it was for those who were there.
The Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov told The Washington Post that Bout was a priority for Russia because he “was really important for military intelligence,” and “he kept his cool in prison [and] never exposed anything to the Americans, as far as I can tell.”
Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, described Bout as a “real criminal” and said the U.S. should secure the release of three Americans in exchange for him, adding Marc Fogel to the swap.
Fogel, a teacher who had worked for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, was sentenced in June to 14 years in a penal colony on charges of drug smuggling — by the same court that is handling Griner’s case.
If a prisoner exchange occurs, Griner and Whelan will join a long succession of Americans abducted or arrested abroad who were released under such deals. Read about some other high-profile prisoner swaps between the U.S. and other countries.
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The farmers’ viewpoint
Last week, Russia and Ukraine signed a deal brokered by the U.N. and Turkey to lift Moscow’s blockade of Ukrainian grain shipments through the Black Sea.
Despite the fanfare surrounding that breakthrough, Ukrainian farmers, who have lived under the risk of Russian missile attacks for months, are skeptical that the agreement will hold, my colleague Liz Alderman reports.
A missile strike that hit the Black Sea port of Odesa on Saturday, just hours after the deal was signed, didn’t do much to inspire their confidence. “No one believes Russia won’t attack again,” said Vasyl Levko, the director of grain storage at MHP, one of Ukraine’s largest agricultural produce companies.
Ukraine’s farmers are grappling with a surplus of grain from last year’s harvests, which they have been unable to export. Before the war, new crops moved in and out of grain elevators — from harvest to export — like clockwork. But Russia’s blockade created a massive pileup.
Another 40 million tons of wheat, rapeseed, barley, soy, corn and sunflower seeds are expected to be harvested in the coming months.
“We are building up a tsunami of grain, producing more than we can export,” said Georg von Nolcken, chief executive of Continental Farmers Group, a large agribusiness with vast tracts around western Ukraine. “We will still be sitting on crops that won’t get out.”
Before the war, Ukraine exported up to seven million tons of grain a month, mostly on ships. Since then, Ukraine has been able to get out only around two million tons per month, via a patchwork of overland and river routes.
What else we’re following
Ukrainian strikes on river crossings in the Kherson region have left Russian forces isolated on the western bank of the Dnipro.
President Volodymyr Zelensky marked the first celebration of a new national holiday, Day of Statehood, with a rousing speech. “We existed, exist and will exist,” he said.
Around the world
Inflation in Germany increased in July to 8.5 percent as concerns grew over rising energy prices, spurred by Russian natural gas cuts.
Iran has made steady advances in the production of military drones and has stepped up their transfer to militant groups across the Middle East. Now, Russia could be a client.
A study by a group of Yale researchers found that sanctions and the exodus of global businesses had been catastrophic for the Russian economy.
Ukrainian officials condemned Turkish football fans who chanted Vladimir Putin’s name after their team conceded a goal to Ukraine’s Dynamo Kyiv, the BBC reported.
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Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Carole
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