(Reuters) – Russia said on Friday it was ready to discuss prisoner swaps with the United States through an existing diplomatic channel, a day a Russian court sentenced basketball star Brittney Griner to nine years in prison for a crime of drugs.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said President Vladimir Putin and his US counterpart Joe Biden previously agreed on a diplomatic channel that should be used to discuss such matters.
“We are ready to discuss this issue, but within the framework of the channel that Presidents Putin and Biden agreed to,” Lavrov said during a visit to Cambodia.
“If the Americans decide to resort to public diplomacy again … that’s their business and I’d even say it’s their business.”
The Kremlin had previously warned the United States against resorting to “megaphone diplomacy” in the Griner case, saying it could only derail efforts to secure a potential trade.
Griner’s sentence, which Biden called “unacceptable,” could pave the way for a prisoner swap that would include the 31-year-old athlete and a prolific Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year prison term in the United States.
The United States has already made what Secretary of State Antony Blinken called a “substantial offer” to secure the release of Americans held in Russia, including Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan.
‘A SERIOUS PROPOSAL’
White House national security spokesman John Kirby said after Griner’s sentencing that the United States had made a serious proposal to Russia.
“We urge you to accept it,” he said. “They should have accepted it weeks ago when we first did it.”
Kirby did not provide further details on the US proposal.
Washington has offered to trade Russian arms dealer Bout for Griner and Whelan, sources familiar with the situation told Reuters.
Russia had tried to add convicted murderer Vadim Krasikov, jailed in Germany, to the proposed swap, a source familiar with the process also told Reuters.
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and a star of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), was arrested on February 17 at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo with vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.
The United States argued that she was unjustly detained and that Moscow used her as a political bargaining chip. Russian officials rejected the US claims, saying Griner had broken Russian law and should be prosecuted accordingly.
Griner, who was prescribed medical cannabis in the United States to relieve pain from chronic injuries, said he had made an honest mistake by inadvertently packing his vape cartridges as he rushed to catch his flight.
He pleaded guilty to the changes against him, but insisted he did not intend to break Russian law.
Cannabis is illegal in Russia for both medicinal and recreational purposes.
(Reuters Reporting; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Mark Heinrich)