Russia said Friday it was ready to discuss a prisoner swap with the United States, a day after WNBA star Brittney Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison by a Russian court for a drug offense.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow was “ready to discuss this topic,” but only within the framework of a diplomatic channel that he said had been previously agreed upon by President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“There is a special channel that has been agreed upon by the presidents, and no matter what anyone says publicly, this channel remains relevant,” he said at a news conference at a meeting with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Cambodia.
Biden said Friday that he was “hopeful,” about Griner Friday. “We’re working hard,” he told reporters at the White House after a bill signing.
He has previously said that his adminstration would “work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue” to bring Griner and Paul Whelan, who is serving a 16-year sentence for espionage, back home.
The U.S. has proposed that Moscow release the pair in exchange for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, according to two sources familiar with the matter. But Russia has shown no sign of accepting the offer, and has decried Washington's decision to publicize it in an effort to step up the pressure for a deal.
Lavrov warned the U.S. against conducting “public diplomacy” and making “loud announcements” on the issue, suggesting it could imperil the high-stakes efforts to secure a swap.
“If the Americans decide to resort to public diplomacy again and make loud announcements ... this is their business, their problem,” he said Friday.
But Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Lavrov's comments suggested Russia was "prepared to engage through channels we've established ... and we'll be pursuing that."
He was also speaking at a news conference in Phnom Penh, but a State Department official said the countries' two top diplomats had not yet spoken face-to-face at the ASEAN summit and had no plans to do so Friday. The last time they spoke directly was during a planned phone call last week, the official said.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Thursday that the U.S. had made a “serious proposal” for a prisoner swap and urged Russia to “accept it.”
“They should have accepted it weeks ago when we first made it,” he said. Asked if Washington was consider a counteroffer from Russia, he said: “I don’t think we go so far as even call it a counteroffer.”
Griner, 31, was sentenced to nine years in Russian prison Thursday after being found guilty of drug possession and smuggling. She will also have to pay a fine of 1 million rubles ($16,590), but can appeal the verdict.
The basketball star was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February after Russian authorities said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage.
Griner, a center for WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury who has played in Russia for the last seven years in the winter, admitted the canisters were hers. However, she said she had brought them to Russia unintentionally after packing her luggage in a hurry.
In a final plea for leniency Thursday, the two-time Olympic gold medalist apologized and repeated that she had never meant to break any Russian laws and had made “an honest mistake.”
Griner’s legal team said the basketball star was “very disappointed,” by Thursday's outcome.
“The court completely ignored all the evidence of the defense, and most importantly, the guilty plea,” her lawyers said in a separate statement sent on the Telegram messaging app. They said they will file an appeal.
Griner’s WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury, said it was hopeful the Biden administration would be able to secure her freedom.
“While we knew it was never the legal process that was going to bring our friend home, today’s verdict is a sobering milestone in the 168-day nightmare being endured by our sister, BG,” the franchise said in a statement.
“We remain heartbroken for her, as we have every day for nearly six months. We remain grateful to and confident in the public servants working every day to return her to her family and us," it said.
The Kremlin has been accused of using Griner as a political pawn, while the Biden administration has been under growing pressure from her family and teammates to secure her release.