No agreement yet on prisoner swap between Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, according to Russia

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RIGA, Latvia — Russia said Thursday that no concrete agreement had been reached in prisoner release talks with the United States, a day after Secretary of State Antony Blinken said a ” substantial proposal” had been made in Moscow to release two imprisoned Americans: WNBA star Brittney Griner and security consultant Paul Whelan.

“There are no finalized agreements yet,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Blinken said Wednesday that a proposal was made to the Kremlin “weeks ago” for the release of Griner and Whelan, although he did not specify its terms or say whether there had been a response. “Our governments have communicated several times and directly on this proposal,” he added.

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Peskov expressed surprise on Thursday at the United States’ break with the diplomatic silence that normally surrounds prisoner release negotiations.

“It is known that when discussing these issues, information is not normally released,” he told reporters, adding that announcements are usually made “about the agreements that have been reached”.

WNBA star Brittney Griner testified on July 27 during her trial in Moscow for drug trafficking. She said her rights were not read when she was detained in February. (Video: Reuters)

Blinken’s comments fueled speculation of a possible prisoner swap involving a notorious Russian arms dealer Victor Bout, 55 years old, nicknamed the “merchant of death”.

Bout, whose exploits once inspired a Hollywood film starring Nicolas Cage, is serving a 25-year sentence in Illinois for conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals and selling weapons to terrorists.

His wife, Alla Bout, wrote that their family will “cross their fingers and believe that soon we will see Viktor at home”. She expressed that hope in a Thursday post on VKontakte, the Russian version of Facebook.

However, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova did not comment on Thursday whether Russia was in talks on exchanging Bout for Griner and Whelan.

But she said Russia’s interests must be taken into account as well as those of the United States, while reiterating that no “concrete results” had been achieved in negotiations to release the prisoners.

The Kremlin has pushed for Bout’s release since his arrest in Thailand in 2008, saying his 2011 conviction in a New York court was “unlawful”. Blinken would not say whether Bout was part of the deal offered to Russia.

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In a dramatic shift in diplomatic demeanor, Blinken also said he would speak to his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, “in the coming days.” It would be their first call since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, and the purpose would be to discuss the release of detained Americans, among other pressing issues, such as the availability of grain and natural gas.

“A few weeks ago a substantial proposal was on the table to facilitate their release,” Blinken told reporters. “And I will use the conversation to follow up personally and hopefully move us towards a resolution.”

If that happens, the prisoner swap would be the second such deal brokered by the Biden administration.

In April, the former U.S. Navy Trevor Reed, who was convicted in 2020 of assaulting two Russian police officers, returned home in exchange for the release of Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was jailed for drug trafficking in the United States.

The exchange showed that Washington and Moscow could still reach agreements even amid the Ukraine war and White House efforts to economically and politically isolate Russia on the world stage.

Proposal for Griner, Whelan follows history of US-Russian prisoner exchanges

Griner, 31, who played in a Russian league during the WNBA offseason, has been detained since February on drug trafficking charges after Russian authorities found two vape canisters of cannabis oil in her luggage at the airport. from Moscow.

Griner pleaded guilty to the charges this month and told a Moscow court on Wednesday that she had no intention of bringing the vape cartridges to Russia and was rushed and stressed during the process. ‘packaging. She must then appear in court on August 2 and faces up to 10 years in prison.

Whelan, 52, denies the espionage charges against him and says he was set up. His twin brother, David Whelan, told The Washington Post on Thursday that his parents speak to Paul “almost daily” and that it “would mean the world” to his family if he came home.

“He didn’t call yesterday, so we don’t know what he knows. Most likely, he will have seen something on Russian TV in the labor colony, and other prisoners will translate Russian for him,” he said. said David Whelan.

“We are grateful that the Biden administration appears to be acting more decisively on the issue of wrongfully detained Americans,” he added.

Whelan’s attorney, Olga Karlova, also told The Post on Thursday that they had not been informed of any prisoner swaps. Nonetheless, she said her legal team was “very happy and waiting breathlessly” for news of a possible swap.

During the April swap for Reed, Biden described the tough choices that come with prisoner swaps. “The negotiations that allowed us to bring Trevor home involved tough decisions that I don’t take lightly,” Biden said at the time.

Earlier this month, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned that demagoguery by US officials on prisoner swaps would only increase tensions and hamper possible interactions over prisoner swaps.

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“We are aware of the attempts by the United States to escalate tensions publicly and get noticed, but they are not helpful in finding a practical solution to the problem,” he told reporters. Ryabkov hinted there were possibilities for talks of a prisoner swap, but he said that could not happen until formal legal proceedings were completed.

Suliman reported from London. Mary Ilyushina and Natalia Abbakumova contributed to this report.

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