U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken discusses Brittney Griner offer with top Russian diplomat

Foreign Minister Antony Blinken said he spoke by phone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday, as part of the highest known contact between the two sides since Russia invaded Ukraine, with Blinken urging Russia to reach an agreement on the release of two American detainees to accept, including WNBA star Brittney Griner.

Blinken did not provide details on Lavrov’s response to what he had previously called a “substantive proposal” for Russia to release Griner and Paul Whelan. Blinken described the call as a “frank and direct conversation” centered around the proposal to release the Americans.

“I have urged Foreign Minister Lavrov to move forward with this proposal,” Blinken said. “I can’t tell you whether that’s more or less likely.”

Russian officials gave no public indication as to whether Blinken had made any progress, only issuing a rebuking statement urging the US to pursue American freedom through “quiet diplomacy, without releasing speculative information.”

Blinken declined to comment on how Lavrov had responded to his messages, saying “I don’t want to characterize any of Foreign Minister Lavrov’s responses.”

In its subsequent statement, Russia’s foreign ministry said Lavrov had “strongly suggested” Blinken “to return to professional dialogue in the mode of silent diplomacy” over any efforts to free American prisoners.

The foreign minister had publicly requested the call, revealing the existence of the offer to Russia – which multiple reports say is about convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Lavrov earlier on Friday said he was open to speaking with Blinken to discuss the prisoner swap, although the State Department was not involved in previous talks on the subject. Friday marked Blinken’s first conversation with Lavrov since February 15.

Griner, a Phoenix Mercury center and two-time Olympic champion, was arrested at a Moscow airport in mid-February when inspectors found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage.

Her 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 incarceration has drawn criticism from teammates and supporters across the United States.

Her trial on drug charges began this month in a court outside Moscow, and she testified on Wednesday that she didn’t know how the cartridges ended up in her bag but had a doctor’s recommendation that cannabis be used to treat work-related pain use.

Griner, 31, has pleaded guilty but said she had no criminal intent in taking the cartridges to Russia and packed in a hurry to play in a Russian basketball league during the WNBA’s offseason. If convicted of drug trafficking, she faces up to ten years in prison. Sources have told ESPN’s TJ Quinn that a verdict and conviction are expected on August 5.

The Biden administration has faced political pressure to free Griner and other Americans who have been declared by the US to be “wrongly detained” — a label sharply opposed by Russian officials.

Whelan, a Michigan security researcher, was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020 for espionage. He and his family have vigorously maintained their innocence. The US government has denounced the allegations as false.

Russia has for years expressed an interest in the release of Bout, a Russian arms dealer once dubbed the “merchant of death.” He was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012 on charges of illegally selling millions of dollars worth of guns.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

https://www.espn.com/wnba/story/_/id/34312875/us-secretary-state-antony-blinken-discusses-brittney-griner-offer-top-russian-diplomat U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken discusses Brittney Griner offer with top Russian diplomat

Emma Bowman

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