ODESA, Ukraine — Top Russian and US diplomats met on Friday for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, to discuss a possible prisoner swap involving US basketball star Brittney Griner. Although no breakthrough was reported, it meant a resumption of direct communication between Washington and Moscow.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said at a news conference that he had urged Secretary of State Sergey V. Lavrov in a telephone conversation to accept a deal for the release of Ms. Griner and another American, Paul N. Whelan, both of whom are detainees. State Department labels as ‘wrongly detained’.
“I have urged Foreign Minister Lavrov to go ahead with that proposal,” he said. “I’m not going to characterize his reaction and I can’t give you an estimate of whether I think things are more or less likely.”
The Biden administration, which has come under enormous public pressure to release Ms. Griner, has offered to extradite Viktor Bout, an imprisoned Russian arms dealer, in exchange for the two Americans, according to a person on the talks. has been informed. Ms. Griner was detained a week before the war started for entering Russia with vape cartridges containing cannabis oil, while Mr. Whelan was arrested and convicted of espionage in 2018; he says he was framed.
In its statement on the appeal, the Russian Foreign Ministry said what was required for a possible prisoner exchange was “quiet diplomacy”, not the release of “speculative information”. The West’s arming of Ukraine, it said, “only prolongs the agony of the Kiev regime, prolongs the conflict and multiplies the casualties.”
Mr Blinken also said he urged Mr Lavrov to honor an agreement reached last week by Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the United Nations to lift a Russian naval blockade and allow grain shipments. to leave Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. It is the most significant agreement reached between the warring countries since Russia invaded five months ago.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Friday that his country is now ready to ship grain and cargo ships could start moving within days, which would be an important step toward alleviating growing global hunger.
“Our side is all set,” said Mr Zelensky during a visit to Chernomorsk, a port near Odessa. “We have sent the signal to our partners, the UN and Turkey, and our military will ensure security.”
Even if grain ships do get underway, danger, uncertainty and deep mistrust will loom over the effort and major obstacles to implementation of the agreement will remain.
What you need to know about Brittney Griner’s detention in Russia
The crucial joker in Mrs Griner’s case, as with food exports, is the unpredictability of Russia, which has given conflicting accounts of the events and its views on many issues.
The Russian authorities say the case of Ms Griner, who pleaded guilty, is simply an apolitical enforcement of their drug laws, although similar cases have been quickly resolved with a fine and deportation. US officials say she is being used by the Kremlin as a pawn in the war in Ukraine.
Several times during the war, the Russians have agreed to allow humanitarian corridors to evacuate besieged cities, only to fire on those corridors and sometimes detain some of those on the run. Just a day after the grain deal was signed, Russia fired missiles at the port of Odessa — though not the part of the port where grain is processed — and Mr Lavrov later said it reserves the right to continue such attacks. .
The Kremlin insists its troops only attack military targets, but offers new evidence to the contrary every day as homes, hospitals, schools, farms and shops are destroyed and civilians are killed. On Friday, a rocket exploded at a busy bus stop in the disputed southern city of Mykolaiv, killing at least five people and injuring more than a dozen, officials said.
“I hope the people who push these buttons see what kind of grief they cause,” said Mykolaiv mayor Oleksandr Senkevych, adding that Russians had hit a busy intersection with cluster munitions. “They will understand that Ukrainians don’t hate them simply because they exist, but because of what they do.”
Dozens of Ukrainian POWs died in an explosion at a camp in the town of Olenivka, in the Russian-controlled area of eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk province, officials said Friday, with both sides blaming the other. What happened was unclear, but it became another example of the two nations fighting hard on the propaganda front and on the battlefield, trying to shape how the war is experienced.
Russia routinely denies well-documented atrocities, its own losses and even its role as an aggressor. It banned any negative description of its “special military operation,” including calling it a war. Within Russia, the Kremlin has almost complete control over information, with independent news channels shutting down rather than being prosecuted.
Novaya Gazeta, one of the most prominent and last remaining of those outlets, reported Thursday that Russian authorities have gone to court to revoke the permit. Novaya Gazeta — whose editor, Dmitri A. Muratov, shared the Nobel Peace Prize last year for defending free speech — suspended operations in March instead of being prosecuted, but unlike many others, it was not disbanded .
Western officials have repeatedly accused Russia of using food as leverage in the war, a claim the Kremlin denies. In addition to blocking ports, the main channel for Ukrainian food exports, Russian forces have attacked farms and food storage facilities and seized grain. Russia’s own food exports have also fallen sharply, blamed on Western sanctions that prevent companies from transporting or insuring Russian shipments.
The fate of Brittney Griner in Russia
The American basketball player has been held in a Russian prison for months on charges of smuggling hash oil into the country.
The resulting shortages helped push food prices up sharply. This spring, wheat futures prices have more than doubled from a year earlier, although they have fallen slightly since then.
Ukraine is one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat, maize, barley and sunflower oil, and is a particularly important supplier to the Horn of Africa, which is struggling with a multi-year drought. More than 20 million tons of grain are stuck in Ukrainian ports because of the war, which the United Nations has warned could significantly increase the risk of famine.
Ukraine has cleared the waters around its ports to prevent a Russian attack. Russian officials said Ukraine should simply clear mines and abandon the grain ships, subject to Russian inspection, and vowed not to take advantage of the lowered defenses — a promise Ukraine would not accept.
Under the deal, Ukrainian pilots who know the safe routes will escort ships in and out of the port. On their way to or from Ukraine, ships will stop in Turkey for inspection by an international team that also includes Russians, mainly to assure Moscow that they are not carrying weapons to Ukraine. In addition, the United Nations will help Russia overcome obstacles to its food exports.
A joint coordination center opened in Turkey on Wednesday is working to establish standard operating procedures, including monitoring, inspection and emergency response, said Ismini Palla, a UN official, adding that the teams were also still working out safe routes for incoming arrivals. and outgoing ships.
“Once all these elements are in place, we will start to see the first movements,” Ms Palla said. “The ultimate goal is to ensure the safe passage of commercial vessels.”
Ambassadors from the Group of 7 countries, including the United States, Britain and Germany, went to the port of Odessa on Friday, near decommissioned cargo ships and grain silos, to emphasize the importance of the deal and urge Russia to insist on adhering to it.
“Millions of people around the world are waiting for grain to come out of these and other Ukrainian ports,” Bridget Brink, the US ambassador to Ukraine, said at the port. “It is very important for Russia to fulfill its obligations and to have this grain exported.”
Michael Schwirtz reported from Odessa, Michael Crowley from Washington and Richard Perez-Penac from Los Angeles. Matina Stevis-Gridneff contributed report from Brussels.