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Russia confirms prisoner swap talks as U.S. hopes for Griner, Whelan release

Brittney Griner in court in Moscow on Aug. 4. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images)

RIGA, Latvia — Russia confirmed Thursday for the first time that negotiations between Washington and Moscow on a prisoner exchange are underway, after the United States proposed a deal to release WNBA star Brittney Griner and another American prisoner, Paul Whelan.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said talks are underway via a channel set up by President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin when they met in Geneva in June last year.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ivan Nechayev said Thursday that negotiations about an exchange began after Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed last week that Russia was willing to talk.

“Instructions were given to authorized structures to carry out negotiations,” Nechayev said. “They are being conducted by competent authorities,” he told journalists in Moscow on Thursday, state media reported.

The Biden administration has been under pressure to secure Griner’s release after her arrest at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport in February. She was carrying two vape cartridges with cannabis oil, containing less than a gram of the substance, which is banned in Russia.

Griner asked the court for leniency but was sentenced last Thursday to 9½ years in prison. Her lawyers have announced plans to appeal.

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)

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced last month that officials made a “substantial” offer for a deal to secure the release of Griner and Whelan, but he has not confirmed media reports that Washington offered to swap Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States.

After Lavrov’s comments, Blinken said the Russians have indicated that “they are prepared to engage through channels we’ve established” for such a purpose and that “we’ll be pursuing that.” Biden said Friday: “I’m hopeful. We’re working hard.”

The State Department says that both Griner and Whelan were wrongfully detained. Biden spoke by phone to the families of Griner and Whelan last month to assure them that his administration is doing everything it can to secure their release.

Former Marine Whelan, 52, a security consultant arrested in 2018 and convicted of spying in 2020, is serving a 16-year prison sentence. He says he was framed. He was not included in an exchange agreement in April in which a retired Marine, Trevor Reed, was swapped for convicted Russian drug trafficker Konstantin Yaroshenko.

Another American arrested at Sheremetyevo International Airport for carrying cannabis into Russia, schoolteacher Marc Fogel, has not been classified by the State Department as wrongfully detained and does not appear to have been included in the proposed prisoner swap.

Senior Russian officials have repeatedly warned Washington against “megaphone diplomacy,” or efforts to use public pressure to try to obtain Griner’s release in talks. Moscow has demanded that such talks take place behind closed doors and without public comment on the details of negotiations.

The Kremlin warned last week that any disclosures could “thwart the entire procedure.”

“The Americans have made this mistake,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday. “They have decided for some reason to solve these problems by the megaphone method. This is not how they are solved.”

Nechayev reiterated that message in his comments Thursday: “We call on the U.S. authorities not to speculate on sensitive matters that affect the fate of specific people, while at the same time abandoning futile attempts to put pressure on us, and we call on them to focus on practical work through established channels.”

A U.S. official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity to address sensitive discussions, said the Biden administration’s reading of the Russian Foreign Ministry statement was that talks about an exchange were taking place in a channel established by President Biden and President Putin at their meeting in Geneva last year, but not that the negotiations recently started.

“This is part of the process [Secretary of State Antony Blinken] made public a couple of weeks ago,” the official said, referring to the “substantial proposal” the Biden administration said it had put forward in hopes of securing the release of Griner and Whelan.

“There had not been at the time of the secretary’s call the level of traction that we wanted, and that’s why he felt it was pertinent and important to pick up the phone and call Foreign Minister Lavrov to convey it to him directly,” the official said. The official declined to provide any further information about the state of communication between the two sides related to a potential swap.

Missy Ryan contributed to this report.