Ukraine War News: US and Russia Will Discuss Griner Via Channel for Prisoner Swaps

Credit…Pool photo by Andrew Harnik

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The top diplomats of the United States and Russia said on Friday that their governments were ready to negotiate over Brittney Griner and Paul N. Whelan, two American prisoners in Russia, through a channel established earlier by their two presidents.

The diplomats, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Russia, made their remarks in separate news conferences with reporters one day after a Russian court sentenced Ms. Griner, a professional basketball star, to nine years in a penal colony on a charge of trying to smuggle drugs into Russia.

American officials have said that Ms. Griner has been “wrongfully detained” and that her trial was politically motivated as tensions between the two countries remain high over Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The Biden administration has offered to free Viktor Bout, an imprisoned Russian arms dealer, in exchange for Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan, people familiar with the proposal have said. Mr. Blinken and the State Department have not publicly disclosed details of the proposal.

At a meeting of foreign ministers from East Asia and partner countries on Friday, Mr. Lavrov said that although he and Mr. Blinken had sat near each other, Mr. Blinken did not make any effort to talk to him.

“Today, there was only one person between us at the table. I didn’t see him trying to catch me,” Mr. Lavrov said at a news conference broadcast by the ministry.

Asked in the afternoon about Ms. Griner’s conviction and Mr. Lavrov’s assertion that Mr. Blinken had made no approach to him, Mr. Blinken said only that talks would take place through the channel cited by Mr. Lavrov.

“We put forward, as you know, a substantial proposal that Russia should engage with us,” Mr. Blinken said. “And 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 it.”

Mr. Lavrov and Mr. Blinken spoke last week about the potential for a prisoner swap, with negotiations to take place through a special channel set up for that purpose, according to people familiar with the conversation. At the time, Mr. Lavrov criticized the United States for what he described as trying to negotiate a prisoner exchange in public.

Both Mr. Lavrov and the Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, renewed that criticism on Friday. “These swaps will never happen if we start discussing any nuances of the exchange in the press,” Mr. Peskov told reporters in Moscow. “The Americans have made this mistake. They have decided for some reason to solve these problems by the megaphone method.”

Credit…Pool photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev
Credit…Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters

In their comments about a diplomatic channel, both sides appeared to be referring to an agreement between President Biden and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, reached at a summit in Geneva in June last year, to negotiate on prisoner and hostage exchanges.

Despite sending signals that a potential exchange is possible, Russian officials have insisted that legal due process must be completed first. After hearing the verdict on Thursday, Ms. Griner’s lawyers said they would appeal the sentence, which might extend the process further.

Trevor R. Reed, a former US Marine, who was sentenced to nine years in prison after being charged with assaulting a Russian police officer, spent more than two years in Russian custody before being exchanged for a convicted Russian pilot in April.

Mr. Blinken said on Friday that the conviction of Ms. Griner “puts a spotlight on our very significant concerns with Russia’s legal system and the Russian government’s use of wrongful detentions to advance its own agenda, using individuals as political pawns. The same goes for Paul Whelan.”

Mr. Whelan is a former US Marine who was convicted by a court in Moscow of espionage charges in 2020 after first being detained in 2018.

On Thursday, John Kirby, a national security spokesman for the White House, said he expected Mr. Blinken to try to talk to Mr. Lavrov about the American prisoners during the meeting in Phnom Penh.

“I have no doubt that if he has an opportunity to buttonhole Mr. Lavrov, he will do so,” Mr. Kirby said. “And if he doesn’t, if it doesn’t just happen organically, I’m sure Secretary Blinken will reach out and have that communication.”

When a conversation didn’t happen, Mr. Lavrov appeared to try to tweak Mr. Blinken about not talking to him, saying: “All my buttons are in place.”

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