WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration has offered a deal to Russia aimed at bringing home WNBA star Brittney Griner and another jailed American Paul Whelan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday.
That offer was put on the table “weeks ago,” Blinken told reporters on Wednesday. He added that he is expected to speak to Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in the “coming days” for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
Blinken’s comment Wednesday was the first public knowledge of the U.S. putting an offer on the table in attempt to free Griner.
CNN reports that Viktor Bout, a Russian weapons trafficker serving a sentence in the United States, was part of the offered exchange.
During months of internal discussions between US agencies, the Justice Department opposed trading Bout, people briefed on the matter say. However, Justice officials eventually accepted that a Bout trade has the support of top officials at the State Department and White House, including Biden himself, sources say.
Blinken did not offer details on the proposed deal, which was offered weeks ago, though it is unclear if it will be enough for Russia to release the Americans. But the public acknowledgment of the offer at a time when the U.S. has otherwise shunned Russia, reflects the mounting pressure on the administration over Griner and Whelan and its determination to get them home.
Blinken said 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 that he schemed to illegally sell millions of dollars in weapons.
Blinken said he had requested a call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. American officials said the the desire for an answer on the prisoner offer was the primary, but not only, reason that the U.S. on Wednesday requested the call with Lavrov.
Should the call take place, it would be the first conversation that Blinken and Lavrov have held since Feb. 15, about a week before Russia invaded Ukraine. Blinken said he would also be speaking to Lavrov about the importance of Russia complying with a UN-brokered deal to free multiple tons of Ukrainian grain from storage and warning him about the dangers of possible Russian attempts to annex portions of eastern and southern Ukraine.
Griner testified at her drug possession trial in Russia that an interpreter translated only a fraction of what was being said while she was detained at Moscow’s airport in February and that officials told her to sign documents, but “no one explained any of it to me.”
In her first testimony in the trial under questioning from the prosecution, Griner also said that besides the poor translation at the airport, she received no explanation of her rights or access to a lawyer during the initial hours of her detention. She said she used a translation app on her phone to communicate with a customs officer.
Griner has been held since mid-February after police said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage. She has pleaded guilty to the charges but says she had no criminal intent in bringing them into the country and packed in haste for her return to play in a Russian basketball league during the WNBA’s offseason.
At one point in her testimony, her tone turned emotional as she said she has always followed the rules and tried to never let down her team.
“My career is my whole life,” she said. “I dedicated everything — time, my body, time away from my family. I spent six months out of the year away from everybody, and with a huge time difference.”
Her arrest came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington ahead of Russia sending troops into Ukraine later that month. The slow-moving trial and Griner’s five months of detention have raised strong criticism among teammates and supporters in the United States, which has formally declared her to be “wrongfully detained” — a designation sharply rejected by Russian officials.