WASHINGTON– The Biden administration has offered a deal to Russia to bring back WNBA star Brittney Griner and another jailed American Paul Whelan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday.
In a sharp reversal from previous policy, Blinken also said he expected to speak with his Kremlin counterpart for the first time since before Russia invaded Ukraine.
The statement marked the first time the US government has publicly revealed any concrete steps it has taken to secure the release of Griner, who was arrested on drug-related charges at a Moscow airport in February and testified Wednesday during his trial.
Blinken did not provide details of the proposed deal, which was proposed weeks ago, though it is unclear whether it will be enough for Russia to free the Americans. But the public acknowledgment of the offer at a time when the United States has otherwise shunned Russia reflects growing pressure on the administration over Griner and Whelan and its determination to bring them home.
Blinken said Washington would like a response from Moscow. Russia has for years expressed interest in the release of Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer once dubbed the ‘merchant of death’, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012 for conspiring to illegally sell millions arms dollars.
Blinken said he had requested a call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. US officials said the desire for a response to the prisoner’s offer was the main, but not the only, reason the US requested the appeal with Lavrov on Wednesday.
If the call goes through, it would be the first conversation Blinken and Lavrov have had since Feb. 15, about a week before Russia invaded Ukraine. Blinken said he would also speak to Lavrov about the importance of Russia complying with a UN-brokered deal to release several tons of Ukrainian grain from storage and warn him of the dangers of possible Russian attempts to annex parts of eastern and southern Ukraine.
Whelan, a Michigan corporate security official, was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison for espionage. He and his family have vigorously asserted his innocence. The US government has denounced the charges as false. He and his family have vigorously asserted his innocence. The US government has denounced the charges as false.
Griner, detained in Russia since last month, admitted in court this month that she had vaping cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage when she arrived in Moscow in February, but claims that ‘she had no criminal intent and inadvertently packed the cartridges.
During her trial on Wednesday, Griner said she did not know how the cannabis oil ended up in her bag, but explained that she had received a doctor’s recommendation and packed it at haste. She said she was turned away at the airport after inspectors found the cartridges, but an interpreter only translated a fraction of what was said during her interrogation and officials asked her to sign documents without providing an explanation.
Griner faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of transporting drugs.
The U.S. government has long resisted prisoner exchanges, fearful of encouraging further hostage-taking and promoting a false equivalence between an American wrongfully detained and a foreign national considered rightly convicted. But an earlier deal in April, in which Navy veteran Trevor Reed was traded for imprisoned Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, appeared to open the door to similar resolutions in the future and the Biden administration has been harassed by political pressure to bring home Griner and other Americans designated as wrongfully detained.
There was no indication that Blinken and Lavrov had communicated to secure Reed’s release. Their last publicly acknowledged contact was on February 22, when Blinken wrote to Lavrov to cancel a meeting they had planned as a last-ditch effort to avert Russian invasion, saying Moscow had shown no interest in serious diplomacy on the question. The State Department later declared Russian diplomacy to be “Kabuki theater” – all spectacle and no substance.
The pair last met in person in Geneva in January to discuss what was then Russia’s massive military buildup along the Ukrainian border and Russian demands for NATO to reduce its presence in Europe. of the East and definitively refuses accession to Ukraine. The United States rejected the Russian demands.
Blinken and Lavrov avoided each other earlier this month the next time they met in the same place at the same time: at a meeting of the Group of 20 nations foreign ministers in Bali, Indonesia.
The pair will then be in the same city at the same time next week in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where they will both attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum. It was not immediately clear whether the phone call ahead of that meeting, scheduled for Aug. 4-5, would presage an in-person discussion.
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