Blinken and Lavrov hold 'frank' discussion about prisoners

US secretary of state and Russian foreign minister have first conversation since February

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks in Washington. AFP
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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday held a telephone conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and pressed the Kremlin to accept the “substantial proposal” that Washington has put forward to secure the release of two Americans detained in Russia.

In their first such conversation since Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the two top diplomats looked to stick to their existing positions, a readout of the call from Mr Blinken and the Russian foreign ministry said.

“We had a frank and direct conversation,” Mr Blinken told a news conference at the State Department. “I pressed the Kremlin to accept the substantial proposal that we put forth on the release of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner.”

Their discussion came as a source familiar with the proceedings said Russia had tried to add convicted murderer Vadim Krasikov to the proposed swap. US officials did not view the idea seriously since Krasikov is in German custody, among other reasons, said the source, confirming a CNN report.

While not getting into the details, the White House National Security Council dismissed the offer.

“Holding two wrongfully detained Americans hostage for the release of a Russian assassin in a third country’s custody is not a serious counter-offer,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson.

“It is a bad faith attempt to avoid the deal on the table that Russia should take.”

A US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the call lasted about 25 minutes and it was “without polemics and was businesslike”.

Mr Lavrov suggested to Mr Blinken that the two sides return to quiet diplomacy on the issue of prisoner swaps.

“Regarding the possible exchange of imprisoned Russian and US citizens, the Russian side strongly suggested a return to the practice of handling this in a professional way and using 'quiet diplomacy' rather than throwing out speculative information,” a Russian foreign ministry statement said.

The US this week announced that it had made an offer to Russia, weeks ago, to secure the release of WNBA star Griner and Mr Whelan, a former US marine, but did not reveal what it was offering.

A source familiar with the situation said Washington was willing to exchange Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25 year-prison sentence in the US, as part of a deal.

Families of Americans detained abroad, many of them by some of the top US adversaries, have been increasing pressure on President Joe Biden, most recently in the case of two-time Olympic gold medallist Griner, who was arrested on drugs charges at a Moscow airport on February 17 and could face up to 10 years in prison.

Earlier in Uzbekistan, Mr Lavrov said talks on prisoner exchanges had been taking place since a summit in Geneva last year, when President Vladimir Putin and Mr Biden had agreed to nominate officials to look into the issue.

Mr Blinken said he had also emphasised to Mr Lavrov that the world expected Russia to fulfil its commitments under a deal with Ukraine struck in Turkey to reopen grain and fertiliser exports that have been blocked by war, which is deepening a worldwide food crisis.

“[Bridget] Brink, our ambassador to Ukraine, was in Odesa this morning. She confirmed the ships are loaded and ready to go … As I made clear, we're looking to see that move forward as soon as possible,” he said.

Mr Lavrov told Mr Blinken that it was the US sanctions that were complicating the global food situation.

The US secretary of state warned Mr Lavrov against going ahead with plans to further annex parts of Ukraine.

“The world will not recognise annexations. We will impose additional significant costs on Russia if it moves forward with its plans,” he said.

The Russian foreign minister said his country would meet the targets of its “special military operation” in Ukraine — the term Moscow uses to define its invasion that it says is being conducted in self-defence. Ukraine and its allies say the Russian assault is entirely unprovoked.

Mr Lavrov also told Mr Blinken that “the continuous pumping of US and Nato weapons into the armed forces of Ukraine … only prolongs the agony of the regime in Kyiv, prolonging the conflict and multiplying the casualties”, the Russian foreign ministry quoted the foreign minister as saying.

Updated: July 30, 2022, 10:20 AM