WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke Friday to his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, and urged him to accept a proposal for the release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, but reported no breakthrough.
Blinken told reporters at a news conference that he had spoken to his Russian counterpart by phone, their first conversation since weeks before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. He declined to say how Lavrov responded.
“I urged Foreign Minister Lavrov to move forward with that proposal,” he said. “I’m not going to characterize his response, and I can’t give you an assessment of whether I think things are any more or less likely.”
In its account of the call, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said that when speaking about the possible exchange of imprisoned citizens, Lavrov suggested returning to a procedure of “quiet diplomacy,” without “speculative information campaigns.”
Griner, a WNBA star who had been playing for a Russian team during the offseason, is on trial in a Russian court and faces a sentence of up to 10 years in prison on drug charges. The 31-year-old athlete was detained in a Moscow airport about a week before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, after customs officials discovered hashish oil in her luggage.
Whelan, a former Marine and corporate security executive, was detained in 2018 in a Moscow hotel, where he had been staying for a friend’s wedding. In 2020, a Russian court sentenced him to 16 years in prison for espionage, a charge that he and his family have denied.
The State Department has classified both Whelan and Griner as “wrongfully detained.”
According to a person briefed on the matter, the Biden administration offered last month to trade Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is currently serving a 25-year federal prison sentence in the United States, for Griner and Whelan.
Blinken also said he had pressed Lavrov to make good on a recent Russian agreement to allow the passage of Ukrainian grain from Black Sea ports and told him that the world would never accept the further Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory.
He warned Lavrov against “sham referendums” intended to “falsely demonstrate that the people in these parts of Ukraine somehow seek to become part of Russia.”
Such actions, Blinken said, “will result in additional significant costs being imposed upon Russia, if it follows through on this plan.”
Lavrov, according to Russia’s Foreign Ministry, said that the grain situation was “complicated by U.S. sanctions.” He also said that Russian forces “strictly observe the norms of international law.”
He added that Russia’s objectives in Ukraine “will be fully fulfilled.”
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