Russia declared itself on Friday “ready to discuss” a prisoner exchange with Washington at the presidential level, the day after the drug conviction by American basketball star Brittney Griner.
Despite the skyrocketing tensions between Russia and the United States since the launch of Moscow’s military intervention in Ukrainethe old Cold War rivals appeared to be closing in on a new prisoner swap.
The White House has urged Russia to accept its offer of a deal for the release of Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan, who was sentenced to 16 years in prison for espionage.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Friday that Moscow was open to discussing the issue.
“We are ready to discuss this subject, but only within the framework of the (communication) channel established by Presidents Putin and Biden,” Lavrov told a news conference during a visit to Cambodia.
“There is a special channel set up by the presidents and despite some public statements it is still functional,” he added.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who spoke to Lavrov about the exchange last Friday, said Washington would “continue” talks with Russia.
He also said Griner’s sentencing highlighted “the Russian government’s use of wrongful detentions to advance its own agenda by using individuals as political pawns.”
WNBA player Griner was sentenced Thursday to nine years in a Russian penal colony and ordered to pay a fine of one million rubles ($16,590) for possessing and trafficking narcotics.
The two-time Olympic basketball gold medalist and NBA women’s champion was arrested at a Moscow airport in February after she was found carrying vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage.
The Phoenix Mercury player was coming to Russia to play club basketball with UMMC Ekaterinburg during the offseason in the United States – a common path for American stars looking for extra income.
grinning pleaded guilty to the chargesbut said she had no intention of breaking the law or using the substance banned in Russia.
“I want the court to understand that it was an honest mistake that I made in rushing, under stress, trying to recover from post-Covid and just trying to get back to my team,” he said. Griner said in his closing statement before the verdict.
Griner had testified that she had permission from an American doctor to use medical cannabis to relieve pain from her many injuries and that she had never failed a drug test.
The use of medical marijuana is not allowed in Russia.
Griner’s legal team said they plan to appeal the “unreasonable” verdict.
President Biden called Griner’s sentencing “unacceptable” and said Washington would “work tirelessly” to secure his release.
Blinken said Washington had presented a “substantial proposal” for Griner and Whelan’s trade.
The most high-profile Russian prisoner in the United States is Victor Bouta 55-year-old arms dealer nicknamed the “Death Dealer”, who is serving a 25-year sentence.
There is no official confirmation that Washington offered to trade him.
Bout’s wife, Alla, expressed sympathy to Griner’s family on Friday, saying she hoped her husband and the American athlete can return home.
“Sympathy has no citizenship or nationality, it is a universal human emotion,” she told Russian news agency RIA Novosti, expressing hope that Russia and the United States “will come to an agreement”.
Moscow and Washington have already exchanged prisoners since the start of Moscow’s Ukrainian offensive.
In April, Washington traded former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed for convicted drug dealer Konstantin Yaroshenko.
In a handwritten letter of Griner who was delivered to the White House last month, the WNBA player wrote how terrified she was of being imprisoned in Russia “forever.”
Griner’s wife, Cherelle, told “CBS Mornings” that as she read the letter, she could feel the fear Griner felt.
“She’s probably the strongest person I know, so she doesn’t say words like that lightly. It means she’s really terrified that she’ll never see us again. You know, I shares the same feelings,” Cherelle Griner said.