MOSCOW (AP) — The Kremlin said Friday it was ready to talk about a prisoner swap involving American basketball star Brittney Griner, but warned Washington against publicizing the issue.
Griner, a two-time US Olympic champion and eight-time All-Star with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, has been detained in Russia since Feb. 17, when police at a Moscow airport found vape cartridges containing marijuana oil in her luggage.
A judge convicted the 31-year-old athlete of drug possession and trafficking on Thursday and sentenced her to nine years in prison. The politically charged case comes amid heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington over Russia’s military action in Ukraine.
In an unusual move, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last week, urging him to agree to a deal to free Griner and Paul Whelan, an American jailed in Russia on espionage charges.
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Both Lavrov and Blinken were in Cambodia on Friday for a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Blinken didn’t even look at his Russian counterpart as they took their seats at the East Asia summit.
Lavrov told reporters that Blinken did not try to contact him when they attended the ASEAN meeting.
“We were separated by just one man at the negotiating table, but I didn’t feel his desire to grab me. My buttons are all set,” Blinken said when asked about Washington’s announcement that he would try to buttonhole Lavrov for a quick interaction in Phnom Penh.
Lavrov said Moscow was “ready to discuss” the prisoner exchange, but the issue should only be discussed through a special Russia-US channel agreed to be established when US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in Geneva in June 2021.
“If the Americans try to engage in public diplomacy again and make loud announcements about their intention to take certain measures, that’s their business, I’ll say their problem as well,” Lavrov said. “Americans often have difficulty observing agreements on calm and professional work.”
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov put the same point more bluntly, saying, “The US has already made mistakes, trying to solve such problems through ‘microphone diplomacy’. They cannot be solved that way.”
He, too, stressed that any talks on possible trade would have to go through the previously established secret channels agreed to by Putin and Biden at last year’s summit.
“Such mechanisms exist, but if the discussion continues in the public domain they will be called into question,” Peskov said. He said: “If we discuss any nuances of the conversion issue through the media, there will be no conversion.”
People familiar with the US proposal said it could trade Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer. He is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the US after being convicted of conspiring to kill US citizens and aiding a terrorist organization.
The call between Blinken and Lavrov marked the highest level of contact between Washington and Moscow since Russia sent troops into Ukraine five months ago, underscoring the public pressure the White House has faced to release Griner.
Griner was arrested while returning to play for a team in Russia, where he has been competing since 2014. Blinken said Friday that her conviction and sentence “compounds the injustice done to her.”
“It focuses on Russia’s legal system and our significant concern about the Russian government’s use of false detentions to advance its own agenda, using individuals as political pawns,” he said.
On Thursday, Biden denounced the Russian judge’s verdict and sentence as “unacceptable” and said he would continue to work to bring Griner and Whelan home.