Officials: Washington, Moscow ready to negotiate over Griner, Whelan
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — One day after Brittney Griner was sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony, the top diplomats of the United States and Russia said their governments were ready to negotiate over securing the freedom of both the American basketball star and Paul Whelan, a former U.S. marine who is also imprisoned by Russia.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Russia, speaking at separate news conferences Friday, said the negotiations would be conducted through a channel established earlier by their presidents.
But in a possible indication of how fraught the countries’ relations are, the diplomats made their comments after sitting close to each other — but not talking — during a meeting of foreign ministers from
Southeast Asia and partner countries.
Griner received a sentence of nine years on a drug charge from a Russian judge in a courtroom outside Moscow on Thursday.
The Biden administration has offered to free Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer imprisoned in the United States, in exchange for Griner and Whelan, people familiar with the proposal have said.
After the meeting Friday, Lavrov took the opportunity to needle Blinken for not making any effort to talk.
Asked in the afternoon about Lavrov’s assertion, Blinken said only that talks would take place through the channel cited by Lavrov.
“We put forward, as you know, a substantial proposal that Russia should engage with us on,” 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.”
The comments about a diplomatic channel appeared to be referring to an agreement between President Joe Biden and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, reached at a summit in Geneva last year, to negotiate prisoner and hostage exchanges.
Lavrov and Blinken spoke last week about the potential for a prisoner swap, according to people familiar with the conversation. At the time, Lavrov criticized the
U.S. for what he described as trying to negotiate a prisoner exchange in public.
Both Lavrov and the Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, renewed that criticism Friday.
“These swaps will never happen if we start discussing any nuances of the exchange in the press,” 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.”