Blinken speaks with Russian foreign minister, seeking deal for Griner and Whelan


WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke to his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, on Friday and urged him to accept a proposal for the release of Brittney Griner and Paul N. Whelan, but reported no breakthrough.

Mr Blinken told reporters at a news conference that he had spoken to his Russian colleague by phone, their first conversation in weeks before the February 24 Russian invasion of Ukraine. He declined to say how Mr. Lavrov reacted.

“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.”

In its report of the appeal, the Russian Foreign Ministry said that, when speaking about the possible exchange of detained civilians, Mr Lavrov proposed a return to a procedure of “silent diplomacy”, without “speculative information campaigns”.

Ms. Griner, a WNBA star who played off-season for a Russian team, is on trial in a Russian court and faces up to 10 years in prison for drug possession. The 31-year-old athlete was detained at a Moscow airport about a week before the Russian invasion of Ukraine after customs officials discovered hash oil in her luggage.

Mr Whelan, a former Marine and corporate security manager, was detained in 2018 at a Moscow hotel where he was staying for a friend’s wedding. In 2020, a Russian court sentenced him to 16 years in prison for espionage, a charge he and his family have denied.

The State Department has classified both Mr Whelan and Ms Griner as “improperly detained”.

According to a person briefed on the matter, the Biden administration last month offered to trade Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is currently serving a 25-year federal prison sentence in the United States, for Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan.

Mr Blinken also said that he had pressured Mr Lavrov to honor a recent Russian agreement to allow the passage of Ukrainian grain from the ports of the Black Sea, telling him that the world would allow the further Russian would never accept annexation of Ukrainian territory.

He warned Mr Lavrov about “mock referendums” meant to “falsely show that the people in these parts of Ukraine are somehow trying to become part of Russia.”

Such actions, Mr Blinken said, “will result in additional significant costs for Russia if it follows through with this plan.”

According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, Mr Lavrov said the grain situation was “complicated by US sanctions”. He also said that Russian troops “strictly adhere to the standards of international law”.

He added that Russia’s goals in Ukraine “will be fully fulfilled”.

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