US WNBA basketball superstar Brittany Griner arrives for a hearing at Khimki Court on July 27, 2022, outside Moscow.  Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and WNBA champion, was detained in February for taking her to the Moscow airport.  Luggage vape cartridges with cannabis oil, which can carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.  (Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP) (Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

Blinken urges Lavrov to accept proposed Brittney Griner prisoner swap

Foreign Minister Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke on the phone on Friday about a US proposal to secure the release of WNBA star Brittany Griner and fellow American Paul Whelan.

Blinken said he “pressurized the Kremlin to accept the offer” in what he described as a “clear and direct dialogue”.

“I urged Foreign Minister Lavrov to move forward with that proposal,” Blinken said. “I’m not going to paint his reaction and I’m not going to give you an assessment of whether I think things are more or less likely, but I think it was important that he hear from me directly. “

President Biden has reportedly signed a 2-for-1 prisoner exchange that will secure the release of Griner and Whelan. In return, the US will release notorious Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year sentence in an Illinois prison for plotting to kill Americans and selling weapons to terrorists.

Russian officials also remained silent about whether any progress had been made during the talks between Blinken and Lavrov. In a statement rebuking the US for negotiating through the media before reaching an agreement, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Lavrov “strongly suggested” to Blinken that he return to “quiet diplomacy”.

The talks between Blinken and Lavrov were their first since Russia invaded Ukraine and the US responded by imposing unprecedented economic sanctions. Relations between the two former Cold War adversaries were so icy that earlier this month Blinken boycotted a group photo at a diplomatic summit in Bali because he did not want to pose with Lavrov.

On Friday, a CNN report likely sheds light on why no deal has been struck for Griner and Whelan, despite the US offering to bout weeks ago. The network reported that Russia had informally requested the addition of convicted murderer Vadim Kasyakov to the proposed swap through back channels.

The US apparently did not take the counteroffer very seriously, considering that Germany is serving a life sentence after the murder of a former Chechen fighter in Berlin. In a statement in response to the CNN story, National Security Council spokesman Adrienne Watson said Russia’s attempt to include Kasyakov on the exchange was “a bad attempt to avoid the deal on the table that Russia should take.”

Russian officials have previously said they would not accept any deals until the conclusion of Griner’s drug trial. Griner’s attorney, Maria Blagovolina, told Yahoo Sports on Thursday that she expects the verdict and sentencing to be delivered during the first half of August.

US WNBA basketball superstar Brittany Griner arrives for a hearing at Khimki Court on July 27, 2022, outside Moscow.  Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and WNBA champion, was detained in February for taking her to the Moscow airport.  Luggage vape cartridges with cannabis oil, which can carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.  (Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP) (Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

US WNBA basketball superstar Brittany Griner arrives for a hearing at Khimki Court on July 27, 2022, outside Moscow. Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and WNBA champion, was detained in February for taking her to the Moscow airport. Luggage vape cartridges with cannabis oil, which can carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. (Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP) (Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

Griner has been behind bars since February 17, when he took off at Moscow airport and Russian customs officials reportedly found a wipe cartridge containing hashish oil in his luggage. He has been charged with an illegal drug and drug trafficking and could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

In early May, the State Department wrongfully detained Griner without explanation and began working to negotiate his release. Whelan, a former Marine, is currently serving a 16-year sentence for espionage charges that he has consistently denied and which the State Department has called bogus.

Experts who spoke to Yahoo Sports on Thursday suspect that a bout for Griner and Whelan’s exchange is imminent. Dartmouth University foreign policy fellow Danielle Gilbert argues that the US does not publicly disclose its offer if it thinks Russia is ready to accept.

“My hunch is that this won’t be the final deal,” Gilbert said. “The fact that the administration is declaring that they have put it on the table and the Russians have not consented to it, it seems that we are a few steps away from getting it done.”

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