This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
Moscow and Washington appeared ready to discuss a possible prisoner exchange after U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner was found guilty of drug smuggling and sentenced to nine years in prison, which U.S President Joe Biden called “unacceptable.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on August 5 that Moscow is ready to discuss prisoner exchanges with Washington through an existing diplomatic channel agreed to by Biden and President Vladimir Putin at a summit in Geneva in June 2021.
“We are ready to discuss this topic, but within the framework of the channel that was agreed upon by Presidents Putin and Biden,” Lavrov told a news conference on the sidelines of an ASEAN meeting in Cambodia on August 5.
In response, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on August 5 that Washington will “pursue” Russia’s offer to discuss a possible prisoner swap.
“[Russian] Foreign Minister Lavrov said this morning…that they are prepared to engage” on a swap for Griner, Blinken said at the foreign ministers’ meeting in Cambodia. “And we’ll be pursuing that.”
The court’s verdict on August 4 was expected to spur talks since a conviction is usually needed before arranging a prisoner exchange. Meanwhile, even with diplomatic relations between Moscow and Washington at lows not seen since the Cold War due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Biden has been under pressure to bring home Americans held in Russia.
White House national-security spokesperson John Kirby said after Griner’s sentencing that the United States had made Russia a “serious” proposal when Blinken and Lavrov spoke by phone on July 29.
Blinken said the talks, the highest level direct communication between the two countries since Russia launched its war on Ukraine in late February, also involved former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan.
Whelan, a corporate security executive, was sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges in 2020. He denies the charges.
News reports quoting U.S. sources have said the Russian swapped for the two would be jailed arms dealer Viktor Bout.
The two countries have shown that despite their poor relations, agreements are still attainable.
In April, they staged a prisoner swap that saw former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed traded for Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was serving a 20-year sentence in the United States.
Griner’s lawyers have said they are appealing the court ruling.