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Russia says any prisoner swap for Griner must be discussed out of the public eye

WNBA star Brittney Griner being escorted from court
WNBA star Brittney Griner is escorted from a courtroom in Khimki, near Moscow, on Thursday.
(Alexander Zemlianichenko / Associated Press)

The Kremlin said Friday that it’s open to talking about a possible prisoner exchange involving WNBA star Brittney Griner but warned Washington against publicizing the issue.

Griner, a two-time U.S. Olympic champion and an eight-time all-star with the Phoenix Mercury, has been detained in Russia since Feb. 17 after police at Moscow’s airport said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage.

A judge convicted the 31-year-old athlete Thursday of 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 invasion of Ukraine.

In an extraordinary move, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke last week to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, urging him to accept a deal under which Griner and Paul Whelan, an American jailed in Russia on espionage charges, would go free.

Lavrov and Blinken were both in Cambodia on Friday for a meeting of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations. But Blinken did not even glance at his Russian counterpart as they took their seats at an East Asia summit.

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Lavrov told reporters that Blinken didn’t try to contact him while they were attending the ASEAN meeting.

WNBA star Brittney Griner, who has been jailed for nearly five months, pleads guilty to drug charges, according to Russian media.

“We were separated by just one person at the discussion table, but I didn’t feel his desire to catch me. My buttons are all in place,” he said when asked about Washington’s statement that Blinken would try to buttonhole Lavrov for a quick interaction in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital.

Lavrov said that Moscow was “ready to discuss” a prisoner swap but that it should be discussed only via a dedicated Russia-U.S. channel that President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to establish when they met in Geneva in June 2021.

“If the Americans again try to engage in public diplomacy and make loud statements about their intention to take certain steps, it’s their business — I would even say their problem,” Lavrov said.

“The Americans often have trouble observing agreements on calm and professional work.”

In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov made the same point more harshly, saying that “the U.S. already has made mistakes, trying to solve such problems via ‘microphone diplomacy.’ They are not solved that way.”

The WNBA star is essentially being held hostage in Russia. She should be freed.

He, too, emphasized that any discussions on a possible trade should be held via the channels that Putin and Biden agreed to last year.

“Such mechanisms exist, but they will be thrown into doubt if the discussion continues in the public domain,” Peskov said, adding: “If we discuss any nuances related to the issue of exchange via media, no exchange will ever take place.”

People familiar with the U.S. proposal have said it envisions trading Griner and Whelan for a Russian arms trader, Viktor Bout. He is serving a 25-year sentence in the United States after being convicted of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.

The call between Blinken and Lavrov marked the highest-level known contact between Washington and Moscow since Russia invaded Ukraine more than five months ago, underlining the public pressure that the White House has faced to get Griner released.

The U.S. has made a ‘substantial’ offer to free Americans from Russia, but the release of Bout would be controversial.

Griner was arrested as she was returning to the U.S. after playing for a team in Russia, where she has competed since 2014.

Blinken said Friday that her conviction and sentence “compounds the injustice that has been done to her.”

“It puts a spotlight on our very significant concern with Russia’s legal system and the Russian government’s use of wrongful detentions to advance its own agenda 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 working to bring Griner and Whelan home.


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