The head of Russian diplomacy, Sergei Lavrov, declared on Friday that Moscow was willing to talk to Washington about a prisoner swap that could implicate the American basketball player Brittney Griner, sentenced the day before to nine years in prison for drug trafficking.
The 31-year-old double Olympic champion is immersed in a geopolitical crisis between the United States and Russia in the midst of the conflict in Ukraine.
US President Joe Biden on Thursday called Griner’s conviction “unacceptable.” The United States accuses Moscow of instrumentalizing its case to extract concessions from Washington.
The US administration has claimed for several days to have submitted to the Kremlin a proposal to obtain Griner’s release, but Russian diplomacy reiterated that a swap could only be discussed once the verdict has been rendered.
“We are ready to discuss this issue, but only within the framework of the channel (of communication) that was agreed upon by Presidents (Vladimir) Putin and (Joe) Biden,” Lavrov told a news conference from Cambodia.
“There is a special channel agreed upon by the presidents and, despite some public declarations, it continues to function,” he added.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who began talks with his Russian counterpart last week about a possible prisoner swap, said Friday that Washington “will continue” to discuss with Moscow.
Blinken also noted that Griner’s sentence highlights the Russian government’s “use of unlawful detention to further its own agenda by using individuals as political pawns.”
A Russian court on Thursday sentenced Brittney Griner, considered one of the best basketball players in the world, to nine years in prison for drug trafficking.
The ruling of the Russian body has raised great indignation, especially in the world of sports.
Griner was arrested in February in Moscow with a vaporizer containing cannabis-based liquid.
The player admitted to having been in possession of this substance. However, she claimed to have inadvertently brought it to Russia and used it legally in the United States as a pain reliever.
Griner had come to Russia to play before the WNBA season, a common practice among female basketball players in the American league, who often earn more money abroad than in the United States.
The athlete is one of several US citizens currently detained in Russia and whose release Washington wants.
The United States reported last week that it had made a “consistent” and “serious” offer to secure the return of Griner and Paul Whelan, an American serving a 16-year prison sentence in Russia for “espionage.”
According to several US media, it would be about exchanging a famous Russian arms dealer arrested in the United States, Viktor Bout, for Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.
Bout was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States.
Nicknamed the “Merchant of Death,” his extraordinary career inspired the movie “The Warlord,” starring Nicolas Cage as a cynical arms dealer.
The arms dealer’s wife, Alla Bout, said Thursday that she hoped for a trade, expressing “compassion” for those close to Brittney Griner. “May God make sure that our countries come to an agreement,” Alla Bout told the Ria Novosti news agency.
Neither Russia nor the United States have confirmed this, and Moscow insists on its desire to keep the negotiations confidential, annoyed by the statements of US officials.
“If the Americans decide again to engage in public diplomacy and make loud statements … it is their business and their problem,” he said, adding that Washington “cannot” work “calmly and professionally” on various issues.