WASHINGTON — The Biden administration has offered Russia a deal aimed at bringing home WNBA star Brittney Griner and another jailed American, Paul Whelan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday.
In a sharp reversal of previous policy, Blinken also said he expects to speak to his Kremlin counterpart for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine.
The statement marked the first time the US government has publicly announced specific actions it has taken to secure the release of Griner, who was arrested at a Moscow airport on drug charges in February and testified at her trial on Wednesday.
Blinken hasn’t offered details on the proposed deal, which was offered weeks ago, and it’s unclear if releasing the Americans will be enough for Russia. But the public acknowledgment of the offer at a time when the US has otherwise shunned Russia reflects mounting pressure on the administration over Griner and Whelan and their determination to bring them home.
Blinken said Washington would like a response from Moscow. Russia has for years expressed an interest in the release of Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer once dubbed the “dealer of death.” Bout was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012 for plotting the illegal sale of millions of dollars worth of guns.
Blinken said he asked to speak to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. US officials said the desire for a response to the prisoner’s offer was the main reason, but not the only reason, why the US requested the call to Lavrov on Wednesday.
If the call goes ahead, it would be the first conversation Blinken and Lavrov have had since Feb. 15, about a week before Russia invaded Ukraine. Blinken said he will also speak to Lavrov about the importance of Russia honoring a UN-brokered deal to free several tons of Ukrainian grain from storage, warning him of the dangers of possible Russian attempts to liberate parts of the east – and to annex southern Ukraine.
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.
Griner, who has been in Russian detention for five months, admitted in court this month that she had e-cigarette cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage when she arrived in Moscow in February, but claims she had no criminal intent and accidentally packed the cartridges.
At her trial on Wednesday, Griner said she didn’t know how the cannabis oil got into her bag, but said she had a doctor’s recommendation for it and packed in a hurry. She said she was pulled aside at the airport after inspectors found the cartridges, but that a language interpreter translated only a fraction of what was said during her questioning and that officials ordered her to sign documents without giving an explanation .
If convicted of drug trafficking, Griner faces up to 10 years in prison.
The US government has long resisted prisoner swaps, fearing it could lead to more hostage-taking and a false equivalence between an American wrongly imprisoned and a foreigner rightly convicted. But an earlier deal in April that swapped Navy veteran Trevor Reed for imprisoned Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko seemed to open the door to similar decisions in the future, and the Biden administration was pressed with political pressure, Griner and others after to bring home Americans identified as wrongfully imprisoned.
There was no indication that Blinken and Lavrov had communicated to secure Reed’s release. Their last public contact was on February 22, when Blinken wrote to 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 . The State Department later said Russia’s diplomacy was “Kabuki theater” — all show and no substance.
The two last met in person in Geneva in January to discuss Russia’s then massive military buildup along Ukraine’s border and Russia’s demands on NATO to reduce its presence in Eastern Europe and permanently deny Ukraine membership. The US rejected the Russian demands.
Blinken and Lavrov avoided each other earlier this month when they were next in the same place at the same time: at a G20-nation foreign ministers meeting in Bali, Indonesia.
The two men will be in the same city in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, at the same time next week, where they will both attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations regional forum. It wasn’t immediately clear if the phone call ahead of that meeting, scheduled for August 4-5, would herald an in-person interview.
https://www.espn.com/wnba/story/_/id/34303004/united-states-offers-deal-russia-release-wnba-star-brittney-griner United States offers deal to Russia for release of WNBA star Brittney Griner