The Kremlin said Friday it is open to discussing a possible prisoner exchange involving US basketball star Brittney Griner, but strongly warned Washington not to make the matter public.
Griner, a two-time U.S. Olympic champion and eight-time all-star with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, has been detained in Russia since Feb. 17 after police at Moscow airport said she found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage.
A judge on Thursday convicted the 31-year-old athlete for drug possession and smuggling and sentenced her to nine years in prison. The politically charged case comes amid high tensions between Moscow and Washington over Russia’s military action in Ukraine.
In an extraordinary move, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last week, urging him to accept a deal involving Griner and Paul Whelan, an American detained in Russia. were released on charges of espionage.
Lavrov and Blinken were both in Cambodia on Friday for a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Blinken didn’t even glance at his Russian counterpart as they sat down at an East Asian Summit.
Lavrov told reporters that Blinken did not try to contact him while they attended the ASEAN meeting.
“We were separated by only one person at the discussion table, but I didn’t feel he wanted to get me. My buttons are all in place,” he said when asked about Washington’s statement that Blinken would attempt to button Lavrov for a quick interaction in Phnom Penh.
Lavrov said Moscow was “ready to discuss” a prisoner swap, but the topic should only be discussed through a special Russian-US channel agreed upon by US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Geneva. in June 2021.
“If the Americans try to engage in public diplomacy again and make loud statements about their intention to take certain steps, that’s their business, I would even say their problem is,” Lavrov said. “Americans often have trouble honoring agreements about quiet and professional work.”
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov sharpened the same point, saying: “The US has already made mistakes by solving such problems through ‘microphone diplomacy’. That is not how they are solved.”
He also stressed that any talks about a possible trade should be conducted through the previously established confidential channels that Putin and Biden agreed at last year’s summit.
“Such mechanisms exist, but they will be questioned if the public domain discussion continues,” Peskov said. He said: “If we discuss any nuances regarding the issue of exchange through the media, there will never be an exchange.”
People familiar with the US proposal have said it plans to trade Griner and Whelan for a notorious Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout. He is serving a 25-year sentence in the US after being convicted of conspiracy to murder US citizens and aid a terrorist organization.
The call between Blinken and Lavrov marked the highest known contact between Washington and Moscow since Russia sent troops to Ukraine more than five months ago, underscoring the public pressure the White House has faced to get Griner released.
Griner was arrested when she returned to play for a team in Russia, where she has been participating since 2014. Blinken said Friday that her conviction and sentence “exacerbates the injustice done to her”.
“It highlights our very deep concern about the Russian justice system and the Russian government’s use of wrongful detentions to advance its own agenda by using individuals as political pawns,” he said.
On Thursday, Biden denounced the Russian judge’s verdict and sentence as “unacceptable” and said he would continue to work to bring Griner and Whelan home.
David Rising in Phnom Penh, Cambodia contributed to this report.
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