Blinken held ‘frank’ talk with Russia’s Lavrov for release of Griner and Whelan

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday said he spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov but did not yet reach a breakthrough on the release of Americans Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan who are currently imprisoned in Russia. 

The administration has reportedly offered to exchange convicted Russian arms dealer Victor Bout for WNBA star Griner and Whelan’s. Bout is less than halfway through a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S.

“I urged Foreign Minister Lavrov to move forward with that proposal,” Blinken said, without acknowledging the prisoner exchange explicitly. 

“I’m not going to characterize his response and I can’t give you an assessment of whether I think things are any more or less likely, but it was important that he hear directly from me on that.”

The phone call between Blinken and Lavrov marked the first direct communication between the two top diplomats since just before Russia launched its invasion into Ukraine on February 24.

President Biden and Blinken have withheld communication with their Russian counterparts as part of efforts to emphasize Russia’s diplomatic isolation over its attacks on Ukraine, but the secretary said Friday the phone call was part of an effort to move the needle on significant issues. 

“We said all along that if we thought there was any opportunity to advance diplomacy to end Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, we would, of course, take it,” Blinken said, but said Russia has shown no willingness “to engage meaningfully on ending the aggression.”

“At the same time I’ve also said that if there are issues where it could make a difference, in senior Russians hearing directly from me or from colleagues, we would, of course, pursue that,” the secretary continued. 

Griner was arrested in Moscow shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine and has pleaded guilty to possessing cannabis oil when she was arrested. But her detainment is criticized as unjust and politically-motivated, given the U.S.-led campaign against Moscow for its war against Kyiv. 

Whelan was arrested in Russia in 2018 on charges of espionage which he denies. The Biden administration also says he is “wrongfully detained.” 

Advocates for their release have mounted a public pressure campaign for Biden to use every tool to secure both Griner and Whelan’s release, including a prisoner exchange.

Marine veteran Trevor Reed was freed in April in an prisoner exchange, with the U.S. handing over convicted drug smuggler Konstantin Yaroshenko.

Blinken said the conversation with Lavrov was “frank and direct.” The secretary also warned the foreign minister against Russian plans to annex territory in Ukraine and “emphasized” that the world expects Russia to fulfill its commitments to allow Ukrainian foodstuffs to exit through their southern ports.

Russia and Ukraine reached a deal to allow the export of grain from Ukrainian ports last week. The deal was mediated by Turkey and the United Nations.