Russia confirms prisoner swap talks with US underway

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RIGA, Latvia — Russia confirmed for the first time on Thursday that negotiations between Washington and Moscow over a prisoner swap are underway, after the United States offered a deal to release WNBA star Brittney Griner and a another American prisoner, Paul Whelan.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said talks were underway through a channel set up by President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin when they met in Geneva in June last year.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ivan Nechayev said on Thursday talks on a swap had begun after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed last week that Russia was open to talks.

“Instructions were given to the authorized structures to carry out the negotiations,” Nechayev said. “They are being carried out by the relevant authorities,” he told reporters in Moscow on Thursday, state media reported.

The Biden administration came under pressure to secure Griner’s release after he was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport in February. She was carrying two vape cartridges with cannabis oil, containing less than a gram of the substance, which is banned in Russia.

Griner asked for clemency in court but was sentenced last Thursday to 9½ years in prison. His lawyers have announced their intention to appeal.

WNBA superstar Brittney Griner has been sentenced to a lengthy prison term by a Russian court after she was caught with a small amount of marijuana oil in her luggage. (Video: Mary Ilyushina, Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced last month that officials had made a “substantial” offer for a deal to secure the release of Griner and Whelan, but he did not confirm media reports that Washington reportedly offered to trade Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who faces a 25-year prison term in the United States.

After Lavrov’s comments, Blinken said the Russians have indicated that “they are ready to engage through the channels we have established” for such a purpose and that “we will pursue that.” Biden said Friday: “I’m hopeful. We’re working hard.

The State Department says Griner and Whelan were wrongfully detained. Biden spoke by phone with the families of Griner and Whelan last month to assure them that his administration is doing everything in its power to secure their release.

The 52-year-old former Marine Whelan, a security consultant arrested in 2018 and convicted of espionage in 2020, is serving a 16-year prison sentence. He says he was framed. He was not included in a swap deal in April in which retired sailor Trevor Reed was swapped for convicted Russian drug trafficker Konstantin Yaroshenko.

Another American arrested at Sheremetyevo International Airport for transporting cannabis to Russia, teacher Marc Fogel, was not classified by the State Department as wrongfully detained and does not appear to have been included in the Proposed prisoner exchange.

Senior Russian officials have repeatedly warned Washington against “megaphone diplomacy” or efforts to use public pressure to try to secure Griner’s release during the talks. Moscow has demanded that these talks take place behind closed doors and without public comment on the details of the negotiations.

The Kremlin warned last week that any disclosure could “thwart the whole process”.

“The Americans made this mistake,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday. “They decided for some reason to solve these problems by the megaphone method. This is not how they are resolved.

Nechayev reiterated this message in his comments on Thursday: “We call on US authorities not to speculate on sensitive issues that affect the fate of specific people, while abandoning futile attempts to pressure us, and we call on them to focus- you on practical work through established channels.

A US official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity to address sensitive discussions, said the Biden administration’s reading of the Russian Foreign Ministry statement was that talks of a swap were taking place in a channel established by President Biden and President Putin when they met in Geneva last year, but not that negotiations have started recently.

“It’s part of the process. [Secretary of State Antony Blinken] made public a few weeks ago,” the official said, referring to the “substantial proposal” the Biden administration said it put forward in hopes of securing Griner and Whelan’s release.

“There had not been at the time of the Secretary’s call the level of traction that we wanted, and that is why he felt it was relevant and important to pick up the phone and call the Minister for Foreign Affairs Lavrov to convey it directly to him,” the official said. said. The official declined to provide further information on the status of communication between the two parties regarding a possible exchange.

Missy Ryan contributed to this report.

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