WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. 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.
In a sharp reversal of previous policy, Blinken also said he expects to speak with his Kremlin counterpart for the first time since before Russia invaded Ukraine to discuss the deal and other matters.
Blinken’s comments marked the first time the U.S. 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 at her trial. He did not offer details on the proposed deal outlined to the Russians, though a person familiar with the matter said the U.S. government has offered to trade convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Whelan and Griner.
The person insisted on anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.
Though it is unclear if the proposal will be enough for Russia to release the Americans, 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.
It also signals a growing acceptance by the White House of prisoner swaps as resolutions for cases of Americans jailed overseas, particularly after a trade in April that secured the release of Marine veteran Trevor Reed and yielded a much-needed publicity win for the administration.
“We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release,” Blinken said. “Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal, and I’ll use the conversation to follow up personally and, I hope, to move us toward a resolution.”
President Joe Biden, who authorized the Reed prisoner swap after meeting with his parents, signed off on the deal the U.S. offered in this case, officials said.
“The president and his team are willing to take extraordinary steps to bring them home,” John Kirby, a White House national security spokesman, told reporters.
Should the call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov take place, it would be the first conversation that the men have held since Feb. 15, about a week before Russia invaded Ukraine. U.S. officials said the desire for an answer on the prisoner offer was the primary, but not only, reason that the U.S. on Wednesday requested a new call with Lavrov.
Blinken said he would also be speaking to Lavrov about the importance of Russia complying with a U.N.-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.
“There is utility to conveying clear, direct messages to the Russians on key priorities for us,” including the release of Griner and Whelan, he said. They also include “what we’re seeing and hearing around the world is a desperate need for the foods, the desperate need for prices to decrease.”
Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan, was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison on espionage charges. He and his family have vigorously asserted his innocence. The U.S. government has denounced the charges as false.
Griner, in Russian custody for the last five months after authorities there said they found her in possession of vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage, testified at her trial Wednesday that 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.
During her testimony, the Phoenix Mercury standout said she still does not know how the cannabis oil ended up in her luggage but explained she had a doctor’s recommendation for using it to address chronic pain from her sports injuries.
She said she was pulled aside at the airport after inspectors found the cartridges, but that a language interpreter translated only a fraction of what was said during her questioning and that officials instructed her to sign documents without providing an explanation.
Griner faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of transporting drugs.
U.S. officials for months had sought to deflect criticism over the apparent lack of momentum in the Griner and Whelan cases by saying that work was proceeding in secret and out of public view. That stance made Wednesday’s announcement all the more startling, but Kirby said the administration had decided to make clear that a deal was on the table.
“We believe it’s important for the American people to know how hard President Biden is working to get Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan home,” he said.
Russia has for years expressed interest in the release of 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. Supporters of his release contend he was jailed after an overly aggressive U.S. sting operation, and the judge who sentenced him told The Associated Press this month that she believed he had already served enough prison time.
The U.S. government has long resisted prisoner swaps out of concern that it could encourage additional hostage-taking and promote false equivalency between a wrongfully detained American and a foreign national regarded as justly convicted. But an earlier deal in April, in which Reed was traded for jailed Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, appeared to open the door to similar resolutions in the future. The Biden administration has also been hounded with political pressure to bring home Griner and other Americans designated as unjustly detained.
There was no indication that Blinken and Lavrov had communicated to secure Reed’s release. Their last publicly recognized contact was Feb. 22, when Blinken wrote to Lavrov to cancel a meeting they had planned as a last-ditch effort to avert the Russian invasion, saying Moscow had shown no interest in serious diplomacy on the matter. The State Department said later 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 build-up along Ukraine’s border and Russian demands for NATO to reduce its presence in eastern Europe and permanently deny Ukraine membership. The U.S. rejected the Russian demands.
The two men will next be in the same city at the same time next week in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where they will both be attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum. It was not immediately clear if the phone call ahead of that meeting, set for Aug. 4-5, would presage an in-person discussion.