The United States has made a “substantial proposal” to Russia to free Americans including basketball star Brittney Griner, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday (AEST).
Blinken said he expected a telephone call “in the coming days” with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the offer to free former Marine Paul Whelan as well as Griner — who told a court earlier that she had brought in banned drugs unintentionally.
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The pair “have been wrongfully detained and must be allowed to come home”, Blinken told reporters.
“We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release. Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal and I’ll use the conversation to follow up personally,” he said.
Citing the sensitivity, Blinken declined to go into detail or confirm reports that the United States was offering to trade them for Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms smuggler.
Bout is nicknamed the “Merchant of Death” as his weapons sales fuelled deadly conflicts around the world.
Russian officials have long pushed for the release of Bout, who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the US after being convicted in 2011 of a conspiracy to kill Americans, conspiracy to deliver anti-aircraft missiles, and aiding a terrorist organisation, Fox News reported.
Bout has claimed he’s a legitimate businessman.
Former US Defence Intelligence Agency officer Rebekah Koffler told Fox News Bout is a “high-value asset”.
“Moscow wants him back because he possesses critical insights that he can share with the GRU, his former agency,” Koffler said. “Having been in a US prison and interrogated by US officials, he knows what our intelligence requirements are and other information that is valuable for the Russians.
“It would be a big mistake for the US to give up Viktor Bout, as much as one feels compassion for Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan.”
The United States and Russia already engaged in one prisoner swap in the heat of the Ukrainian war. In April Washington exchanged former US Marine Trevor Reed for convicted drug smuggler Konstantin Yaroshenko.
American President Joe Biden has faced growing pressure to free Griner, who faces up to 10 years in prison and whose wife earlier accused the administration of doing too little to help.
Whelan, a security official at an auto parts company, was arrested in Moscow in December 2018 and in 2020 sentenced to 16 years in prison for espionage, which he denies.
Whelan’s family in a statement voiced appreciation for the Biden administration’s efforts and hoped that Russia “accepts this or some other concession” for his freedom.
The telephone conversation will be the first between Blinken and Lavrov since February 15 when the top US diplomat warned Russia against invading Ukraine.
Griner, a two-time Olympic basketball gold medallist and Women’s NBA champion who had played in Russia, was detained just days before Moscow launched its offensive.
She has pleaded guilty to drug charges over possessing vape cartridges with cannabis oil.
Speaking at her trial in Khimki, just outside Moscow, Griner said she still did not know how the cartridges ended up in her bag and had no intention to use them.
“I did not think of or plan to bring banned substances into Russia,” said Griner, wearing a Phoenix Mercury T-shirt and black basketball trousers.
“I did not intend to break Russian law,” she added, saying that she was in a rush packing and tired after a recovery from Covid.
“I wouldn’t do anything that would hurt my team.”
With Fox News