Russia is ready to discuss prisoner swap with US, Lavrov says

Moscow's foreign minister cautions White House against making 'loud statements' on the issue

US basketball player Brittney Griner sits in the courtroom in Khimki City, outside Moscow. EPA
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Moscow is ready to discuss a prisoner exchange that would return WNBA star Brittney Griner to the US, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Friday.

Mr Lavrov's comments came a day after a Russian court sentenced Griner to nine years in prison for drug possession and smuggling, a verdict that was criticised by US President Joe Biden.

“We are ready to discuss this topic, but within the framework of a channel that was agreed upon by Presidents [Vladimir] Putin and Biden,” Mr Lavrov said in Cambodia, where he is attending an Association of South-East Asian Nations regional forum.

“There is a special channel agreed upon by the presidents. Whatever is said publicly, that channel is still open,” he said.

The US said it made a “substantial” offer to Russia to secure the release of Griner and fellow detainee Paul Whelan.

Mr Whelan, a former marine, was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020, after being convicted of espionage charges. The US denies the charges.

Former US marine Paul Whelan, who was convicted of espionage in 2020, stages a protest during his verdict hearing in Moscow. Reuters

US media reported that Washington would exchange Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Griner and Mr Whelan's release.

Nicknamed the “Merchant of Death”, Bout is currently serving a 25-year sentence after being convicted of conspiring to kill Americans and aiding a terrorist organisation.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Russia had made a “bad faith” response to Washington's offer.

And US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is also in Cambodia, said Washington is concerned about Moscow using wrongful detainees as “political pawns”.

“We put forward, as you know, a substantial proposal that Russia should engage with us on,” Mr Blinken told reporters.

“And what Foreign Minister Lavrov said this morning and said publicly is that they are prepared to engage through channels we've established to do just that and we'll be pursuing.”

The Kremlin warned the White House against publicising the issue.

“If the Americans again try to engage in public diplomacy and make loud statements about their intention to take certain steps, it’s their business — I would even say their problem,” Mr Lavrov said.

“The Americans often have trouble observing agreements on calm and professional work.”

Mr Biden has called for the immediate release of Griner and added that he would continue working to bring her and Mr Whelan home.

“I'm hopeful. We're working hard,” he told reporters at the White House on Friday.

Updated: August 05, 2022, 6:02 PM