Blinken speaks with Russian counterpart about detained US prisoners in Moscow

Washington DC - US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he had spoken with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov about the possible release of two US citizens imprisoned by Moscow in the first conversation between the two since the war in Ukraine began.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he had a "frank and direct conversation" with the Russian foreign minister about the release of two US prisoners in Moscow.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he had a "frank and direct conversation" with the Russian foreign minister about the release of two US prisoners in Moscow.  © REUTERS

Blinken and Lavrov had a "frank and direct conversation" on Friday morning about an offer to release the US basketball player Brittney Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan, Blinken said in Washington.

Whelan has been imprisoned for alleged espionage since his arrest in 2018. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison in June 2020.

US professional basketball player Griner is on trial for a drug offense after being detained in February at a Moscow airport, days before Russian troops invaded Ukraine.

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On Wednesday, the player admitted to the Khimki court in the Moscow region that she was carrying cannabis, but explained it was for medical reasons, the Interfax news agency reported.

Griner used the drug as a painkiller in consultation with a doctor, a common practice in the US, she said. "I had no intention of violating any law of the Russian Federation," Interfax quoted her as saying.

The Olympic champion, who plays in Russia in the US off-season, has been in pre-trial detention, which was most recently extended until December 20. She is accused of drug possession and faces up to 10 years in prison if found guilty.

Blinken presses for a prisoner swap

US basketball star Brittney Griner (l.) and former Marine Paul Whelan (r.) are currently being detained in Russia.
US basketball star Brittney Griner (l.) and former Marine Paul Whelan (r.) are currently being detained in Russia.  © Collage: REUTERS

"I pressed the Kremlin to accept the substantial proposal that we put forth on the release of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner," Blinken said on Friday.

Blinken also addressed Lavrov about the war in Ukraine, launched by Russia in February, saying plans to replace the Ukrainian government and annex the territory "would never be accepted," Blinken said.

After mixed signals, Lavrov had earlier indicated an interest in talking to Blinken about the exchange of prisoners and the resumption of grain exports from Ukraine on Friday.

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Lavrov noted that his ministry was not responsible for questions around prisoner exchanges, adding: "But I will nevertheless listen to what he has to say," according to Interfax news agency.

Lavrov calls for an easing of US sanctions

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said US sanctions are preventing the transport of Russian grain.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said US sanctions are preventing the transport of Russian grain.  © REUTERS

From his point of view, the Russian foreign minister said he wanted to hear how the United States intended to fulfill its obligations on the implementation of the grain deal under UN auspices.

"Because, if it's about Russian grain, US sanctions in particular have not permitted the contracts to be implemented in their full scope," Lavrov said. He noted embargoes on Russian ships along with restrictions on insuring and financing freight.

A recent deal to release millions of tons of grain stuck in Ukrainian Black Sea ports has been widely welcomed as a way to help alleviate a looming hunger crisis in parts of the world dependent on exports from the region.

Russia has linked allowing shipment of Ukrainian grain to the easing of sanctions to facilitate the export of its own grain and fertilizers.

While there are no direct bans imposed by the West on these exports, sanctions are impacting all of Russia's foreign trade.

Cover photo: Collage: REUTERS

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