Blinken, Russian diplomat speak on Griner offer
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov by phone Friday in the highest-level known contact between the two sides since Russia invaded Ukraine, with Blinken urging Russia to accept a deal for the release of two American detainees, including WNBA star Brittney Griner.
Blinken did not provide details of Lavrov’s response to what he had previously called a “substantial proposal” for Russia to release Griner and Paul Whelan. Blinken described the call as a “frank and direct conversation” centered primarily on the proposal for the release of the Americans.
“I urged Foreign Minister Lavrov to move forward with that proposal,” Blinken said. “I can’t give you an assessment of whether that is any more or less likely.”
Russian officials gave no public hint whether Blinken had made any headway, only issuing a chiding statement afterward urging the U.S. to pursue the Americans’ freedom through “quiet diplomacy, without releases of speculative information.”
Blinken declined to comment on how Lavrov replied to his messages, saying, “I don’t want to characterize any of Foreign Minister Lavrov’s responses.”
In its statement afterward, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Lavrov “strongly suggested” to Blinken “returning to a professional dialogue in the mode of quiet diplomacy” on any efforts at American detainees’ release.
The secretary of state had publicly requested the call and revealed the existence of the offer to Russia — which, according to multiple reports, involves convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Lavrov had said earlier Friday that he was open to a call with Blinken to discuss the prisoner exchange, even though the Foreign Ministry hadn’t been involved in previous discussions on the issue. Friday marked the first conversation between Blinken and Lavrov since Feb. 15.
Griner, a center for the Phoenix Mercury and two-time Olympic gold medalist, was arrested at a Moscow airport in mid-February when inspectors found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage.
Her arrest came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington ahead of Russia sending troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24. Griner’s five months of detention have raised strong criticism among teammates and supporters in the United States.
Her trial on drug charges started in a court outside Moscow this month, and she testified Wednesday that she didn’t know how the cartridges ended up in her bag but that she had a doctor’s recommendation to use cannabis to treat career-related pain.
Griner, 31, has pleaded guilty but said she had no criminal intent in bringing the cartridges to Russia and packed in haste for her return to play in a Russian basketball league during the WNBA’s offseason. She faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of transporting drugs. Sources have told ESPN’s T.J. Quinn that a verdict and sentence are expected Aug. 5.
The Biden administration has faced political pressure to free Griner and other Americans whom the U.S. has declared to be “wrongfully detained” — a designation sharply rejected by Russian officials.
Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan, was sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges in 2020. He and his family have vigorously asserted his innocence. The U.S. government has denounced the charges as false.
Russia has for years expressed interest in the release of Bout, a Russian arms dealer once labeled the “Merchant of Death.” He was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012 on charges that he schemed to illegally sell millions of dollars in weapons.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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