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US, Russia say they’re willing to discuss prisoner swap after Griner conviction

Aug. 5, 2022 Updated Fri., Aug. 5, 2022 at 8:54 p.m.

U.S. Women's National Basketball Association basketball player Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, waits for the verdict inside a defendants' cage during a hearing in Khimki outside Moscow, on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022.   (EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)
U.S. Women's National Basketball Association basketball player Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, waits for the verdict inside a defendants' cage during a hearing in Khimki outside Moscow, on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022.  (EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)
Bloomberg News

By Bloomberg News

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Friday they’re willing to pursue talks on a prisoner exchange involving WNBA star Brittney Griner and another jailed American.

The two top diplomats spoke separately on the sidelines of a meeting of foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a day after a Moscow court sentenced Griner to nine years in prison on drug charges. They didn’t meet or speak in person during the conference. President Joe Biden called Griner’s punishment “unacceptable” and said the White House would work tirelessly in pursuit of her release.

“There is a special channel agreed upon by the presidents,” Lavrov told a news conference. “Whatever is said publicly, that channel is still open.”

Blinken indicated the U.S. will continue its efforts to negotiate a deal for the release of Griner, a two-time Olympic Gold medalist, and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who was jailed in Russia in 2020 on spying charges he denies.

“We put forward, as you know, a substantial proposal that Russia should engage with us on,” Blinken said. “What Foreign Minister Lavrov said this morning and said publicly is that they are prepared to engage through channels we’ve established to do just that and we’ll be pursuing.”

Last month, the Biden administration proposed swapping Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer known as the “merchant of death” who was sentenced to 25 years in 2012, and a second Russian also held in a U.S. jail, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.

While Bout has long been the subject of Kremlin efforts to return him to Russia, officials in Moscow have been leaning toward rejecting the offer because they regard its terms as unequal, people familiar with the Kremlin’s thinking say.

Griner, 31, was convicted of drug possession and smuggling following her arrest at a Moscow airport after customs officials found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage. She pleaded guilty July 7, saying her action was unintentional, and her lawyers had asked the court for a lenient punishment.

A Russian official asked via a back-channel to include in any swap deal Vadim Krasikov, a former official with links to the domestic spy agency who was convicted of murder in 2021 in Germany, people familiar with the conversations said.

Another potential target for Russia could be Vladislav Klyushin, a Kremlin insider extradited from Switzerland to the U.S. in December on insider-trading charges, several people in Moscow with knowledge of the matter said.

Klyushin may be far more valuable to Russia and the U.S.. Russian intelligence has concluded that he has access to documents related to the hacking of Democratic Party servers during the 2016 presidential election, according to people in Moscow close to the Kremlin and security services. One of Klyushin’s alleged co-conspirators, who remains at large, was previously charged in connection with Russia’s scheme to interfere in the vote.

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