US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday that he spoke by phone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and urged Moscow to accept the US offer to release two Americans imprisoned in Russia: women’s basketball star Brittney Griner and another Citizen, Paul Whelan.
It was Blinken’s first conversation with Lavrov since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which began in February.
Blinken did not disclose details of Lavrov’s response to what he had earlier called a “substantial proposal” for Russia to release Whelan and Griner.
The secretary of state had publicly requested the call and revealed the existence of the offer to Russia, which according to sources familiar with the matter proposes to exchange Griner and Whelan for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving a sentence in the United States.
Blinken said it was “a frank and direct conversation” that was mainly about the proposal for the release of the Americans.
“I have urged Foreign Minister Lavrov to move forward with that proposal. I can’t give you an assessment of whether that’s more or less likely.”
Earlier Friday, Lavrov had said he was willing to hold a call with Blinken to discuss a possible prisoner swap involving Griner.
During a visit to Uzbekistan, Lavrov said his ministry was open to discussing the prisoner swap, even though the foreign ministry had not been involved in previous discussions on the issue.
The two-time Olympic champion and WNBA player for the Phoenix Mercury was arrested at a Moscow airport in mid-February when inspectors found vape cartridges filled with cannabis oil in her luggage.
Griner’s arrest came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington ahead of the dispatch of Russian soldiers to Ukraine on February 24. Griner’s five-month detention has drawn sharp criticism from teammates and fans in the United States.
At her trial in a court outside Moscow, Griner testified on Wednesday that she did not know how the cartridges appeared in her luggage, but that she had a doctor’s recommendation to use cannabis as a pain reliever for pain related to her professional playing career.
The 31-year-old has pleaded guilty but says she had no criminal intent in bringing the cartridges to Russia and hastily packed her suitcase to play in a Russian basketball league during the WNBA offseason. She faces up to 10 years in prison for drug trafficking.
The Biden administration has faced political pressure to release Griner and other Americans whom the United States has declared “wrongly detained” — a designation Russian authorities have adamantly rejected.
Asked Thursday about the US offer, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded that prisoner swaps are usually negotiated behind the scenes.
“We know that these matters are discussed without disclosing information,” Peskov stressed during a virtual press conference. “Normally, the public finds out when the deals are consummated.”
Blinken’s comments represent the first time the US government has publicly disclosed that it has taken any concrete steps to secure Griner’s freedom.