Russia’s top diplomat signaled on Friday that Kremlin was ready to discuss a prisoner exchange with the US — a day after Brittney Griner was convicted of cannabis possession and sentenced to nine years in prison.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that President Vladimir Putin and President Joe Biden had previously agreed that a private diplomatic channel should be used to discuss possible prisoner exchanges, “no matter what anyone says publicly.”
Referring to the prospect of a swap, Lavrov told reporters while attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Cambodia: “We are ready to discuss this topic, but within the framework of the channel that was agreed upon by presidents Putin and Biden.”
He added: “If the Americans decide to once again resort to public diplomacy … that is their business and I would even say that it is their problem.”
Lavrov’s American counterpart, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, concurred that Washington was prepared to pursue talks with Moscow through the established diplomatic channels.
There have been discussions that the 31-year-old WNBA star and retired Marine Paul Whelan, who is imprisoned in Russia on an espionage conviction, could be exchanged for Victor Bout, a notorious arms dealer dubbed “the Merchant of Death” who is serving a 25-year sentence in the US.
After Griner’s verdict was announced at the Khimki court just outside Moscow on Thursday, Blinken said in a statement that her sentencing “compounds the injustice of her wrongful detention.”
Kremlin has remained tight-lipped on the prospect of a swap, saying that if prisoner exchanges were discussed in the media, they would never happen.
“The Americans have already made that mistake, suddenly deciding to use megaphone diplomacy to resolve these issues,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “This is not how they are resolved.”
Peskov declined to comment on Griner’s verdict. When asked if she could be pardoned, he said that the clemency procedure was coded in Russian laws.
The US has already made what Blinken called a “substantial offer” to secure the release of Griner and Whelan.
“We urge them to accept it,” White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said. “They should have accepted it weeks ago when we first made it.”
Kirby did not elaborate on the proposal, but sources familiar with the matter said the Biden administration has offered to swap Bout for the two jailed Americans.
Russia also reportedly had tried to add convicted assassin Vadim Krasikov, imprisoned in Germany, to the proposed exchange.
A State Department official said that Blinken and Lavrov had not met at the summit in Cambodia, reported CNN.
Griner was arrested on Feb. 17 at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport with vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.
The United States argued she was wrongly detained and being used as a political pawn chip by Moscow. Russian officials dismissed that claim, saying Griner had broken Russian law and should be judged accordingly.
Griner pleaded guilty to the charges but testified that she made an “honest mistake” by placing the cartridges in her luggage while “stress-packing,” and that she never intended to break Russian law.
Before her verdict was announced on Thursday, Griner offered a tearful apology and begged for mercy.
“I never meant to hurt anybody, I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population, I never meant to break any laws here,” she said.
“I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling that it doesn’t end my life here. I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that, that is far from this courtroom,” she added.
With Post Wires