Blinken says he ‘pressed’ Lavrov on release of US prisoners

The US is trying to secure release of basketball star Brittney Griner and ex-marine Paul Whelan, both held in Russia.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said he urged the Kremlin to accept a proposal for the release of two high-profile Americans detained in Russia during a call with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov.

During a news conference in Washington on Friday afternoon, Blinken said he had a “frank and direct conversation” with Lavrov earlier in the day.

“I pressed the Kremlin to accept the substantial proposal that we put forth on the release of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner,” the top United States diplomat told reporters.

Lavrov suggested to Blinken that the two sides return to quiet diplomacy on the issue of prisoner swaps.

“Regarding the possible exchange of imprisoned Russian and US citizens, the Russian side strongly suggested a return to the practice of handling this in a professional way and using ‘quiet diplomacy’ rather than throwing out speculative information,” a Russian foreign ministry statement said.

 

Blinken said on Wednesday that the Biden administration had made a “substantial offer” to obtain the release of Griner, a US basketball star, and Whelan, a former marine.

 

A source cited by the Reuters news agency said that Washington was willing to exchange convicted arms trafficker Viktor Bout, jailed in the United States, as part of such a deal.

US basketball player Brittney Griner is escorted before a court hearing in Khimki, outside Moscow, Russia [File: Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters]

Blinken and Biden had not spoken since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

But the families of the US detainees have been increasing pressure on US President Joe Biden’s administration to bring them home, most recently in the case of two-time Olympic gold medallist Griner, who was arrested on drugs charges at a Moscow airport on February 17.

Speaking earlier at a news conference in Uzbekistan, Lavrov said talks on prisoner exchanges had been taking place since a summit last year in Geneva, where Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin had agreed to nominate officials to look into the issue.

Al Jazeera’s Rosiland Jordan, reporting from Washington, said the US considers the conversation between Blinken and Lavrov to be “a significant step forward”.

“We don’t know of any progress was made, but certainly Secretary of State Blinken was at least satisfied that he was able to make the case directly to his Russian counterpart,” Jordan said.

Grain shipments

During Friday’s news conference, Blinken said he told Lavrov that “the world expects Russia to fulfil its commitments” as part of the UN-backed grain deal signed by Russia and Ukraine last week.

“As I made clear, we’re looking to see that move forward as soon as possible,” he said.

During the call, Lavrov told Blinken that the global food crisis is complicated by US sanctions, and that Washington was not living up to promises regarding the exemption from sanctions for the supply of food from Russia.

Blinken also said he warned Lavrov of consequences should Moscow move ahead with suspected plans to annex portions of eastern and southern Ukraine, saying such a move will never be recognised and “will result in significant additional costs for Russia”.

A Russian foreign ministry read-out of the call cited Lavrov as telling Blinken that Russia would achieve all the goals of its “special military operation” and said Western arms supplies to Ukraine would only drag out the conflict and multiply casualties.

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