January 27, 2023

The US has offered Russia a deal aimed at bringing home WNBA star Brittney Griner and another imprisoned American, Paul Whelan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on 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 to discuss the deal and other matters.

Blinken’s comments marked the first time the US government has made public the concrete action it has taken to secure the release of Griner, who was arrested in February at a Moscow airport on drug-related charges and testified at her trial on Wednesday. He did not offer the Russians any details about the proposed deal, although a person familiar with the matter said the US government has offered to trade convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Whelan and Griner.

The person insisted on anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.

While it’s unclear whether the proposal will be enough for Russia to release the Americans, the public acknowledgment of the offer at a time when the US has otherwise shunned Russia reflects mounting government pressure over Griner and Whelan. and her determination to get them. House.

It also points to a growing White House acceptance of prisoner swaps as a solution to cases of Americans imprisoned abroad, especially after an April transaction that saw the release of Navy veteran Trevor Reed and gave the government much-needed publicity gains.

“We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release,” Blinken said. “Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly about that proposal and I will use the conversation to personally follow up and, I hope, guide us to a solution.”

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President Joe Biden, who authorized the Reed prisoner swap after meeting with his parents, signed the deal the US offered in the matter, officials said.

“The president and his team are willing to take extraordinary steps to bring them home,” John Kirby, a White House national security spokesman, told reporters.

Should the conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov take place, it would be the men’s first conversation since February 15, about a week before Russia invaded Ukraine. 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 another meeting with Lavrov on Wednesday.

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.

“It’s helpful to get clear, direct messages to the Russians about key priorities for us,” including the release of Griner and Whelan, he said. They also include “what we see and hear around the world is a desperate need for food, the desperate need for price cuts.”

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.

Griner, who spent the past five months in Russian custody after authorities there said they had vaped cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage, testified at her trial on Wednesday that she had no criminal intent to bring them into the country and hastily wrapped up for her return to play in a Russian basketball league during the WNBA’s off-season.

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During her testimony, the Phoenix Mercury star said she still doesn’t know how the cannabis oil got into her luggage, but explained that she had a doctor’s recommendation to use it to manage chronic pain from her sports injuries.

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.

US officials had spent months trying to fend off criticism of the apparent lack of momentum in the Griner and Whelan cases, saying the work was being done in secret and out of public view. That attitude made Wednesday’s announcement all the more shocking, but Kirby said the government had decided to make it clear that a deal was on the table.

“We believe it is important for the American people to know how hard President Biden is working to get Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan home,” he said.

Russia has for years expressed interest in the release of Bout, a Russian arms dealer once dubbed the “Merchant of Death,” who was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012 on charges of plotting to illegally sell millions of dollars worth of weapons. Supporters of his release claim he was jailed after an overly aggressive US sting operation, and the judge who convicted him told The Associated Press this month that she believed he had already served enough prison time.

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The U.S. government has long opposed the prisoner swap out of concern that it could instigate new hostage situations and promote false equivalence between a wrongfully detained American and a foreign national considered to have been rightly convicted. But an earlier deal in April, trading Reed for imprisoned Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, seemed to open the door for similar resolutions in the future. The Biden administration has also been hounded with political pressure to bring home 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 buildup along its border with Ukraine, and Russia’s demand for NATO to reduce its presence in Eastern Europe and increase membership of Ukraine permanently. The US rejected the Russian demands.

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.