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Russia signals willingness to discuss prisoner swap with U.S.

U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner sits inside a defendants’ cage awaiting the court’s verdict in Khimki City court outside Moscow on Aug. 4. (Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

RIGA, Latvia — Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Friday that his country was ready to discuss a prisoner exchange offer from the United States involving basketball star Brittney Griner, but warned that “loud statements” and public diplomacy from the Biden administration could sink hopes of any deal.

“We are ready to discuss the issue,” Lavrov told reporters Friday, the day after a Russian court sentenced Griner to 9 1/2 years imprisonment. He said that the appropriate channel would be via a dialogue mechanism established by Washington and Moscow after President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Geneva last summer.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking after Lavrov’s comments, said that now that Russia has agreed “they are prepared to engage through channels we’ve established to do just that … we’ll be pursuing that.”

President Biden said at the White House that "I’m hopeful. We’re working hard.”

Blinken said that Griner’s sentence “further compounds the injustice that’s being done to her and her wrongful detention,” putting “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. The same goes for Paul Whelan.”

Whelan, a security consultant, is serving a 16-year sentence of hard labor after being arrested in Moscow and convicted of spying in 2020. He says he was framed.

Blinken and Lavrov spoke at separate news conferences in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where both were attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit. They did not speak with each other.

Lavrov accused Blinken of being uninterested in meeting with him. “We sat next to each other at the table during today’s discussion but I did not see him show interest in catching me,” he said.

“If this is another case of the Americans resorting to public diplomacy and loud statements on their pending steps, it’s their business — or I would even say their problem — because the Americans often fail to honor the agreement on doing calm, professional work,” Lavrov said.

The administration has said that Griner and Whelan, 52, have been “wrongfully” detained. Griner, 31, was convicted in February of carrying less than a gram of cannabis oil into Russia in February. She pleaded guilty to what she said was an accidental oversight while packing to return to the Russian basketball team where she plays in the U.S. basketball offseason.

Brittney Griner sentenced to 9½ years in Russian prison on drug charges

The issue comes as U.S.-Russia relations have sunk to their lowest level since the Cold War, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Moscow has threatened to break diplomatic relations with Washington if it continues supplying sophisticated weaponry to the Ukrainian military.

As it struggles against heavy U.S. and international sanctions and isolation, the Kremlin has sought to use the prisoner situation both to demonstrate its ongoing relevance on the world stage and ability to force the United States to carry on high level bilateral diplomacy.

The Kremlin on Friday repeated its warnings against publicly discussing the terms of any prison exchange involving Griner, saying this could “thwart the entire procedure.”

“The Americans have made this mistake,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in Moscow, referring to Blinken’s announcement last week that the United States had made an unspecified “substantial” offer for the release of the two.

“They have decided for some reason to solve these problems by the megaphone method. This is not how they are solved,” Peskov said. He declined to answer questions on whether Moscow was considering a prisoner swap to exchange Russian Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year jail term in the United States related to arms trafficking, for Griner and Whelan.

“These swaps will never happen if we start discussing any nuances of the exchange in the press,” Peskov said.

Russia has long sought the release of Bout, who was arrested in a 2008 sting by the Drug Enforcement Administration in Thailand and convicted in the United States of conspiring to kill U.S. citizens. He is believed to have close ties to Russian intelligence and the upper echelons of Putin’s circle.

While there is widespread U.S. support for administration efforts to secure the release of Griner and Whelan, some critics have said that Bout’s release would be an unwarranted capitulation. They fear that Russia and other countries will be encouraged to seize Americans to gain leverage over the United States.

WNBA superstar Brittney Griner was given a lengthy prison sentence by a Russian court after she was caught with a small amount of marijuana oil in her luggage. (Video: Mary Ilyushina, Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

Blinken spoke by telephone to Lavrov last week, urging him to accept a deal involving Griner and Whelan.

Brittney Griner’s Mercury tips off amid cries to ‘bring her home’

During that conversation, Blinken “made clear in no uncertain terms the priority we attach to the prompt return of Brittney and Paul. We have yet to hear a serious response to the substantial proposal the Secretary referred to last week,” a senior State Department official said Friday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive diplomacy.

Lavrov also said during the call that he was not the right channel to pursue negotiations on the matter, indicating that they should take place through a line of communication established between Biden and Putin at their June 2021 summit.

“Certain mechanisms of this dialogue were coordinated there,” Peskov said. “The mechanisms are available, but their operation will be called into question if their public discussion continues.”

A Russian judge on Thursday rejected Griner’s plea for leniency and her apology for “an honest mistake” in bringing the cannabis oil vape cartridges into the country. She also was fined 1 million rubles ($16,590).

The sentence — close to the maximum possible in Russia — has fueled anger among the athlete’s fans, who see her as a political pawn between Russia and the United States.

A regularly scheduled basketball game Thursday evening between Griner’s Phoenix Mercury team and the Connecticut Sun began with 42-seconds of silence, a length of time matching her Jersey number. Afterward, the teams and crowd broke into a lengthy chant of “Bring her home!”

Griner’s fate is now in the hands of Putin, who will make the final decision on any prisoner swap.

Brittney Griner may go to a Russian penal colony. What you need to know.

Peskov declined to comment on Griner’s sentence but when asked about the possibility that she could be granted a presidential pardon, he said, “a certain procedure exists, and the convicted woman can use it in accordance with the law.”