MOSCOW – Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Friday that he is open to a call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to discuss a possible prisoner exchange involving US basketball star Brittney Griner.
Blinken said Wednesday that Washington had offered Russia a deal that would bring home Griner and the other imprisoned American, Paul Whelan. A person familiar with the matter said the U.S. government offered to trade convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Whelan and Griner.
During a visit to Uzbekistan, Lavrov said his ministry received an official call request from the United States after Blinken made the statement. Russia’s top diplomat said he would be ready once he returned to Moscow and that the timing of the call was being worked out.
Lavrov said he was open to discussing the exchange of prisoners, although the Foreign Ministry had not been involved in previous discussions on the issue.
“I will listen to what he has to say,” Lavrov added.
Asked about the US offer on Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said prisoner swaps are usually negotiated quietly behind the scenes.
“We know that these matters are discussed without that information being disclosed,” Peskov told reporters during a conference call. “Usually, the public is informed when the agreements are already implemented.”
Blinken’s comments marked the first time the U.S. government has publicly disclosed any specific actions it has taken to secure Griner’s release. The two-time Olympic gold medalist and player for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury was detained at a Moscow airport in mid-February when inspectors found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage.
Griner’s arrest came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington before Russia sent troops into Ukraine on February 24. Griner’s five-month detention drew strong criticism from his colleagues and supporters in the United States.
Her trial on drug charges began this month in a court outside Moscow, and she testified Wednesday that she did not know how the cartridges ended up in her bag, but that she had a doctor’s recommendation to use cannabis to treat race-related pain.
The 31-year-old pleaded guilty but said she had no criminal intent to bring the cartridges to Russia and rushed back to play in a Russian basketball league during the WNBA’s offseason. She faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of drug trafficking.
The Biden administration faced political pressure to release Griner and other Americans whom the United States declared “arrested by mistake,” a designation strongly 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 strongly maintained their innocence. The US government denounced the allegations as false.
Russia has for years shown its interest in the release of Bout, a Russian arms dealer who was once labeled the “Death Merchant”. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012 on charges that he planned to illegally sell millions of dollars worth of weapons.
Matthew Lee and Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of Griner’s case at https://apnews.com/hub/brittney-griner
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Russia’s Lavrov says he will discuss US prisoner swap offer
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