Kremlin says Griner swap must be discussed without publicity

The Kremlin has said it is ready to discuss a possible prisoner swap with American basketball star Brittney Griner, but has warned Washington against going public with the issue.

Riner, a two-time US Olympic gold medalist and eight-time WNBA Phoenix Mercury All-Star, has been detained in Russia since February 17 after police at Moscow Airport said she found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage.

A judge sentenced the 31-year-old athlete to nine years in prison on Thursday for drug possession and smuggling.

The politically charged case comes amid high tensions between Moscow and Washington over Russia’s military action in Ukraine.

In an extraordinary move, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week, urging him to accept a deal that would free Griner and Paul Whelan, an American jailed in Russia on espionage charges.

Mr Lavrov and Mr Blinken were both in Cambodia on Friday for a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Mr. Blinken did not even glance at his Russian counterpart as they took their seats at an East Asia summit.

Mr Lavrov told reporters that Mr Blinken did not attempt to contact him while they were attending the ASEAN meeting.

“We were only separated by one person at the discussion table, but I didn’t feel like he was trying to get me. My buttons are all in place,” he said when asked about Washington’s statement that Mr Blinken would try to button Mr Lavrov for a quick interaction in Phnom Penh.

Mr Lavrov said Moscow was “ready to discuss a prisoner swap” but the issue should only be discussed through a dedicated Russian-American channel, US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin at their meeting in Geneva in June 2021 set up agreed.

“If the Americans try again to engage in public diplomacy and loudly express their intention to take certain steps, that’s their business, I would even say their problem,” Lavrov said.

“Americans often struggle to keep agreements about working quietly and professionally.”


Brittney Griner is escorted out of a courtroom in Khimki, just outside Moscow, after a hearing (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov made the same point even sharper: “The US has already made mistakes when trying to solve such problems through ‘microphone diplomacy’. They will not be solved that way.”

He, too, stressed that any talks about a potential trade should be conducted through the previously established confidential channels, which Mr Putin and Mr Biden agreed to during last year’s summit.

“Such mechanisms exist, but they will be called into question if the public discussion continues,” said Peskov.

He said: “If we discuss any nuances regarding the issue of exchanges through the media, there will never be an exchange.”

People familiar with the US proposal said it envisages trading Griner and Mr Whelan for a notorious Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout.

He is serving a 25-year sentence in the US after being convicted of conspiracy to murder US citizens and support a terrorist organization.

The call between Mr Blinken and Mr Lavrov was the highest-profile contact between Washington and Moscow since Russia deployed troops to Ukraine more than five months ago, underscoring the public pressure the White House is facing to release Griner.

Griner was arrested when she returned to play for a team in Russia, where she has been competing since 2014.

Mr Blinken said on Friday that her conviction and sentence “aggravates the injustice done to her”.

“It highlights our grave concern about Russia’s legal system and the Russian government’s use of unlawful detention to advance its own agenda by using individuals as political pawns,” he said.

On Thursday, Mr. Biden condemned the Russian judge’s ruling and sentence as “unacceptable” and said he will continue to work to bring Griner and Mr. Whelan home. Kremlin says Griner swap must be discussed without publicity

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