White House insiders say the Biden administration made the extraordinary choice to publicly announce its offer to release Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner from Russian custody because it wanted to “comfort Americans” more than it wanted to appease Moscow.
An agreement to free Griner and another imprisoned American, Paul Whelan, was offered to Russia, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday during a press conference. According to a source with knowledge of the situation, Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms dealer, was up for trade in exchange for Whelan and Griner.
However, the Kremlin warned on Thursday that any negotiations for a prospective prisoner swap involving American basketball star Brittney Griner and the United States must take place covertly and without publicity.
Dmitry Peskov, a spokesperson for the Kremlin, said that prisoner swaps are normally conducted covertly and behind closed doors when asked about the U.S. offer.
“We know that such issues are discussed without any such release of information,” Peskov told reporters during a conference call. “Normally, the public learns about it when the agreements are already implemented.”
He emphasized that “no agreements have been finalized” and refused to provide further details.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova stated in a different statement that talks between Russian and American authorities on potential prisoner exchanges have taken place, but “no concrete outcome yet.”
“We proceed from the assumption that interests of both parties should be taken into account during the negotiations,” Zakharova said.
The U.S. administration publicly disclosed its efforts to gain Griner’s release for the first time with Blinken’s remarks. The WNBA player for the Phoenix Mercury and two-time Olympic gold medalist was detained at a Moscow airport in the middle of February when security officials discovered cannabis oil-infused vape cartridges in her luggage.
Followed by Whelan who has been detained since 2018 and was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020 on what the United States describes as fictitious espionage charges.
In a striking departure from prior practice, Blinken stated that he anticipates speaking with Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, to discuss the possible prisoner bargain and other issues. They would speak on the phone for the first time since before Russia moved troops into Ukraine.
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