ODESSA, Ukraine — Senior Russian and US diplomats met Friday for the first time since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February to discuss a possible prisoner swap involving US basketball star Britney Greener. Although no breakthrough was reported, it meant the resumption of direct communication between Washington and Moscow.
Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken said in a press conference that in a telephone conversation he urged Foreign Secretary Sergei V. Lavrov to agree to a deal to release Ms. Griner and another American, Paul N. Whelan, both of whom the State Department refers to as ” wrongfully detained.”
“I urged Foreign Minister Lavrov to push this proposal forward,” he said. “I’m not going to characterize his answer and I can’t give you an estimate of how much I think everything is more or less likely.”
The Biden administration, which has come under enormous public pressure to release Ms. Griner, has offered to hand over Viktor Bout, an imprisoned Russian arms dealer, in exchange for two Americans, according to a person briefed on the discussions. Ms Griner was detained a week before the start of the war for entering Russia with vape cartridges containing cannabis oil, and Mr Whelan was arrested in 2018 and convicted of espionage; he says he was framed.
AT his statement During a telephone conversation, the Russian Foreign Ministry said that in the event of a possible exchange of prisoners, “quiet diplomacy” is needed, and not the release of “speculative information”. Arming Ukraine by the West, he said, “only prolongs the agony of the regime in Kyiv, prolonging the conflict and multiplying the victims.”
Mr Blinken said he also pushed for Mr Lavrov to honor an agreement reached last week between Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the UN to ease the Russian naval blockade and allow grain shipments from Ukrainian ports on Chernoy sea. This is the most important agreement between the warring countries since the Russian invasion five months ago.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Friday that his country is now ready to start shipping grain and that cargo ships could start moving within days, a major step towards reducing growing global hunger.
“Our side is fully prepared,” Zelenskiy said during a visit to Chornomorsk, a port near Odessa. “We have given a signal to our partners, the UN and Turkey, and our military will guarantee security.”
Even if the grain trucks hit the road, danger, uncertainty and deep distrust will hang over the efforts, and serious obstacles to the implementation of the agreement will remain.
What you need to know about the detention of Britney Griner in Russia
The decisive trump card in Ms. Griner’s case, as in the case of food exports, is the unpredictability of Russia, which on many issues gave conflicting assessments of events and its position.
Russian authorities say the case of Ms. Griner, who pleaded guilty, is simply an apolitical application of their drug laws, although such cases were quickly resolved with a fine and expulsion. US officials say the Kremlin is using her as a pawn in the war in Ukraine.
On several occasions during the war, the Russians agreed to allow humanitarian corridors to evacuate besieged cities, only to fire on those corridors and sometimes delay some of the fleeing ones. Just a day after the signing of the grain deal, Russia fired missiles at the port of Odessa — though not the grain-handling part of the port — and Mr Lavrov later said he reserved the right to continue such attacks.
The Kremlin insists that its forces only strike military targets, but each day brings new evidence to the contrary as homes, hospitals, schools, farms and shops are destroyed and civilians are killed. On Friday, a rocket exploded at a crowded bus stop in the war-torn 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 the grief they cause,” Mykolaiv Mayor Alexander Senkevich said, adding that the Russians had fired cluster munitions at the crowded intersection.
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“They will understand that Ukrainians hate them not just for the fact that they exist, but for what they do.”
On Friday, officials said a blast at a camp in the town of Olenivka in Russia-controlled Donetsk Oblast in eastern Ukraine killed dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war, with each side blaming the other. What happened was unclear, but it was yet another example of the two countries fighting hard on both the propaganda front and the battlefield in an attempt to shape how war is perceived.
Russia routinely denies well-documented atrocities, its own losses, and even its role as the aggressor. He banned any negative description of his “special military operation”, including calling it a war. In Russia, the Kremlin has near-total control over information, and independent news outlets are shut down rather than prosecuted.
Novaya Gazeta, one of the best-known and last remaining publications, reported on Thursday that Russian authorities had filed a lawsuit demanding that it be stripped of its license. Novaya Gazeta, whose editor Dmitry A. Muratov won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for defending freedom of speech, suspended operations in March to avoid prosecution but, unlike many others, has not disbanded.
Western officials have repeatedly accused Russia of using food as leverage in the war, a claim the Kremlin denies. In addition to blockading ports, Ukraine’s main food export channel, Russian troops have targeted farms and food warehouses and confiscated grain. Russia’s own food exports have also fallen sharply, for which Russia blames Western sanctions that discourage companies from transporting or insuring Russian cargo.
The fate of Britney Griner in Russia
The American basketball star spent several months in a Russian prison on charges of smuggling hash oil into the country.
The resulting shortage helped drive up food prices sharply. Wheat futures prices were more than twice as high this spring as they were a year earlier, although they have declined somewhat since then.
Ukraine is one of the world’s leading exporters of wheat, corn, barley and sunflower oil, and a particularly important supplier to the Horn of Africa, which is experiencing a multi-year drought. More than 20 million tons of grain are stranded in Ukrainian ports due to the war, which the United Nations has warned greatly increases the risk of famine.
Ukraine mined the waters around its ports to prevent a Russian attack. Russian officials said Ukraine should simply remove the mines and allow grain ships to sail under Russian control, vowing not to take advantage of lowered defenses, a promise Ukraine was unwilling to accept.
Under the agreement, Ukrainian pilots, who know safe routes, will guide ships to and from the port. En route to or from Ukraine, the ships will stop in Turkey for inspection by an international team that includes Russians, primarily to reassure Moscow that they are not bringing weapons to Ukraine. In addition, the UN will help Russia overcome obstacles to food exports.
The joint coordination center, which opened in Turkey on Wednesday, is working to establish standard operating procedures, including monitoring, inspections and emergency response, UN spokesman Ismini Palla said, adding that the teams are also still developing safe routes for incoming and outgoing ships. .
“Once all these elements are in place, we will see the first movements,” Ms Palla said. “The ultimate goal is to ensure the safe passage of merchant ships.”
G7 ambassadors including the US, UK and Germany arrived at the port of Odessa on Friday, alongside idle cargo ships and grain silos, to stress the importance of the deal and urge Russia to honor it.
“Millions of people around the world are waiting for grain to come from this and other Ukrainian ports,” Bridget Brink, US Ambassador to Ukraine, said at the port. “It is very important for Russia to fulfill its obligations and allow the export of this grain.”
Michael Schwirtz reported from Odessa. Michael Crowley from Washington and Richard Perez-Pena from Los Angeles. Matina Stevis-Gridneff provided a report from Brussels.