WASHINGTON (TBEN) — The Biden administration has offered Russia a deal to bring home WNBA star Brittney Griner and another imprisoned American Paul Whelan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday.
In a sharp turn of the previous policy, Blinken also said he expects to speak with his Kremlin counterpart for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine.
The statement marked the first time the US government has publicly taken any concrete action to secure the release of Griner, who was arrested at a Moscow airport in February on drug-related charges and testified at her trial on Wednesday.
Blinken gave no details on the proposed deal, which was offered weeks ago, though it’s unclear whether it will be enough for Russia to release the Americans. But the public acknowledgment of the offer at a time when the US has shunned Russia differently reflects the government’s mounting pressure over Griner and Whelan and its determination to get 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 in 2012 to 25 years in prison on charges of plotting to illegally sell millions of dollars worth of weapons. .
Blinken said he had requested a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. US officials said the desire for a response to the prisoner’s offer was the main, but not the only, reason why the US requested the meeting with Lavrov on Wednesday.
Should the call happen, it would be the first conversation Blinken and Lavrov have had since February 15, about a week before Russia invaded Ukraine. Blinken said he would also talk to Lavrov about Russia’s interest in complying with a UN-brokered deal to remove several tons of Ukrainian grain from storage and to warn him of the dangers of possible Russian attempts to seize parts of Eastern Europe. and annex southern Ukraine.
Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan, was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020 on charges of espionage. He and his family have vigorously claimed his innocence. The US government has labeled the allegations false. He and his family have vigorously claimed his innocence. The US government has labeled the allegations false.
Griner, who was in Russian custody for the past month, admitted in court this month that she had cartridges of cannabis oil in her luggage when she arrived in Moscow in February, but claims she had no criminal intentions and packed the cartridges by mistake.
At her trial Wednesday, Griner said she didn’t know how the cannabis oil ended up in her bag, but explained that she had a doctor’s advice and hastily packed it. She said she was pulled over at the airport after inspectors found the cartridges, but an interpreter only translated a fraction of what was said during her interrogation and officials told her to sign documents without explaining.
Griner faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of drug trafficking.
The U.S. government has long opposed the prisoner swap out of concern that it could incite new hostage situations and promote false equivalence between an unjustly detained American and a foreign national considered to have been 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 for similar resolutions in the future, and the Biden administration has been hounded with political pressure to expel Griner and other Americans. identified 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 Lavrov to cancel a meeting they had planned as a last-ditch effort to avert the Russian invasion, saying Moscow had shown no interest in serious diplomacy on the matter. this issue. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs later said that Russian diplomacy was “Kabuki Theater” – all show and no substance.
The two last met in January in Geneva to discuss what was then Russia’s massive military build-up along its border with Ukraine, and Russia’s demand that NATO reduce its presence in Eastern Europe and extend Ukraine’s membership. would refuse permanently. The US rejected the Russian demands.
Blinken and Lavrov avoided each other earlier this month the next time they were in the same place at the same time: at a meeting of foreign ministers from the Group of 20 Nations in Bali, Indonesia.
The two men will be in the same city in Phnom Penh, Cambodia next week at the same time, where they will both attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations regional forum. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the phone call ahead of that meeting, scheduled for August 4-5, would predict a face-to-face meeting.