KHIMKI, Russia — The United States has offered Russia a deal aimed at bringing home WNBA star Brittney Griner and another imprisoned American, Paul Whelan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday. In a sea change from previous policy, Blinken also said he hopes to speak with his Kremlin counterpart for the first time since before Russia invaded Ukraine.
The statement marked the first time the US government has publicly revealed any concrete action it has taken to secure the release of Griner, who was arrested on drug-related charges at a Moscow airport in February and testified Wednesday in his judgment.
Blinken did not offer details on the proposed deal, which was offered weeks ago, and it is unclear if it will be enough for Russia to free the Americans. But the public acknowledgment of the offer at a time when the United States has shunned Russia reflects the growing pressure on Griner and Whelan on the administration and their determination to bring them home.
Blinken said that Washington would like a response from Moscow. Russia has for years expressed interest in the release of Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer once labeled the “merchant of death,” who was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012 on charges of conspiring to illegally sell Millions of dollars worth of weapons.
Blinken said he had requested a call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. US officials said the desire for a response on the prisoner’s offer was the main, but not the only, reason the US requested the call with Lavrov on Wednesday.
If the call goes through, it would be the first conversation Blinken and Lavrov have had since February 15, about a week before Russia invaded Ukraine. Blinken said he would also speak to Lavrov about the importance of Russia complying with a UN-brokered deal to release multiple tons of stored Ukrainian grain and warn him about the dangers of possible Russian attempts to annex parts of eastern and southern Ukraine.
Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan, was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison on espionage charges. He and his family have strongly asserted his innocence. The US government has denounced the charges as false.
Griner, in Russian custody for the past five months, admitted in court that he had vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in his luggage when he arrived in Moscow in February, but maintains he had no criminal intent and inadvertently packed the cartridges.
At her trial on Wednesday, Griner said she did not know how the cannabis oil ended up in her bag, but explained that she had a doctor’s recommendation and had packed it in a hurry. She said she was pulled aside at the airport after inspectors found the cartridges, but a language interpreter translated only a fraction of what was said during her interrogation and officials ordered her to sign documents without giving an explanation. .
Griner faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of transporting drugs.
The US government has long resisted prisoner swaps for fear it could encourage more hostage takings and promote a false equivalence between an American wrongfully detained and a foreign national deemed justly convicted. But an earlier deal in April, in which Navy veteran Trevor Reed was traded for jailed Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, appeared to open the door to similar resolutions in the future and the Biden administration has been hounded with political pressure to bring home to Griner and others. Americans designated as wrongfully detained.
There was no indication that Blinken and Lavrov had communicated to secure Reed’s release. Their last publicly acknowledged contact was on February 22, when Blinken wrote to Lavrov to cancel a meeting they had planned as a last-ditch effort to prevent a Russian invasion, saying Moscow had shown no interest in serious diplomacy on the matter. The State Department later said that Russia’s diplomacy was “Kabuki Theater,” all show and no substance.
The two last met in person in Geneva in January to discuss what was then Russia’s massive military buildup along the Ukrainian border and Russian demands that NATO reduce its presence in Eastern Europe and deny permanent membership of Ukraine. The United States rejected the Russian demands.
Blinken and Lavrov avoided each other earlier this month the next time they were in the same place at the same time: at a meeting of foreign ministers of the Group of 20 nations in Bali, Indonesia.
The two men will be in the same city at the same time next week in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where they will both attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum. It was not immediately clear whether the phone call before that meeting, scheduled for Aug. 4-5, would herald an in-person discussion.