Kremlin says Griner swap should be discussed without publicity


The Kremlin said on Friday it is open to discussing a possible prisoner swap involving US basketball star Brittney Griner, but strongly warned Washington not to go public with the matter.

Griner, a two-time US Olympic champion and eight-time All-Star with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, has been detained in Russia since February 17 after police at Moscow airport said they found vape cartridges that contained cannabis oil in their luggage.

A judge convicted the 31-year-old athlete on 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 military action in Ukraine.

In an extraordinary move, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke last week with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, urging him to accept a deal under which Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges, would be released.

Lavrov and Blinken were 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 took their seats at an East Asia Summit.

Lavrov told reporters that Blinken did not attempt to contact him while they were attending the ASEAN meeting.

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

Lavrov said Moscow was “ready to discuss” a prisoner swap, but that the issue should only be discussed through a dedicated Russia-US channel that US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have 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 actions, it is their business, I would even say it is their problem,” Lavrov said. “Americans often have trouble meeting agreements about working quietly and professionally.”

In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov made the same comment more harshly, saying that “the US. They don’t get resolved that way.”

He also stressed that any discussion of a possible trade must take place through previously established confidential channels that Putin and Biden agreed to during last year’s summit.

“Such mechanisms exist, but they will be called into question if the discussion continues in the public domain,” Peskov said. He said, “If we discuss any nuance related to the exchange issue through the media, no exchange will ever take place.”

People familiar with the US proposal have said it plans to swap 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 conspiring to kill US 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 sent troops to Ukraine more than five months ago, underscoring the public pressure the White House has faced to free Griner.

Griner was arrested while returning to play for a team in Russia, where she has competed since 2014. Blinken said Friday that her conviction and sentence “complicate the injustice that has been done to her.”

“It highlights our very significant concern with Russia’s legal system and the Russian government’s use of unjust 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 will continue to work to bring Griner and Whelan home.


David Rising in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, contributed to this report

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