MOSCOW – The Kremlin said on Friday it was open to talks about a possible prisoner swap involving US basketball star Brittney Greener, but strongly warned Washington against making the matter public.
Griner, a two-time U.S. Olympic champion and eight-time star with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, has been detained in Russia since Feb. 17 after Moscow airport police said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage.
A judge convicted the 31-year-old athlete on Thursday of drug possession and trafficking and sentenced her to nine years in prison. The politically charged case comes amid heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington over Russia’s military actions in Ukraine.
In an extraordinary move, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken spoke last week with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, urging him to accept a deal that would see Griner and Paul Whalen, an American jailed in Russia on espionage charges, released.
Lavrov and Blinken were in Cambodia on Friday for a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Blinken didn’t even look at his Russian counterpart as they took their seats at an East Asian summit.
Lavrov told reporters that Blinken had not tried to contact him while they attended the ASEAN meeting.
“We were separated by only one person at the discussion table, but I did not feel his desire to catch me. All my buttons are in place,” he said when asked about Washington’s statement that Blinken would try to arrange Lavrov for a quick interaction in Phnom Penh.
Lavrov said Moscow was “ready to discuss” a prisoner swap, but the topic should only be discussed through a special Russian-American channel that US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to set up when they met in Geneva in June 2021
“If the Americans again try to engage in public diplomacy and make loud statements about their intentions to take certain steps, this is their business, I would even say, their problem,” Lavrov said. “Americans often have trouble honoring quiet and professional work agreements.”
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov made the same claim more pointedly, saying that “the United States has already made mistakes trying to solve such problems through ‘microphone diplomacy.’ They are not resolved that way.”
He also stressed that any discussions about possible trade should take place through the pre-established confidential channels that Putin and Biden agreed to during last year’s summit.
“Such mechanisms exist, but they will be called into question if the discussion continues in the public space,” Peskov said. He said: “If we discuss any nuances related to the issue of exchange through the media, there will never be an exchange.”
People familiar with the U.S. proposal said it called for Greiner and Whelan to be swapped for notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. He is serving a 25-year sentence in the US after being convicted of conspiring to kill US citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organisation.
The call between Blinken and Lavrov marked the highest-level known contact between Washington and Moscow since Russia sent troops to Ukraine more than five months ago, underscoring the public pressure the White House faces to release Greener.
Griner was arrested while returning to play for a team in Russia, where she has competed since 2014. Blinken said Friday that her conviction and sentence “compounds the injustice that has been done to her.”
“This underscores our very great concern about the Russian legal system and the Russian government’s use of wrongful detention to advance its own agenda using individuals as political pawns,” he said.
On Thursday, Biden condemned the Russian judge’s conviction and sentence as “unacceptable” and said he would continue to work to bring Griner and Whelan home.
David Rising in Phnom Penh, Cambodia contributed to this report.
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The Kremlin says Griner’s swap should be discussed without publicity
Source link The Kremlin says Griner’s swap should be discussed without publicity