RIGA, Latvia — Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Friday that his country was ready to discuss a possible prisoner exchange deal with the United States involving basketball star Brittney Griner but warned “loud statements” and public diplomacy from the United States could sink hopes of any deal.
“We are ready to discuss the issue,” Lavrov told reporters Friday. He said that the appropriate channels would be via a dialogue mechanism established by Washington and Moscow after President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Geneva in 2021.
Lavrov also accused Secretary of State Antony Blinken of being uninterested in meeting with him to discuss the matter on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit taking place in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
“We sat next to each other at the table during today’s discussion but I did not see him show interest in catching me,” Lavrov said at a news conference at the end of his visit to Cambodia.
“If this is another case of the Americans resorting to public diplomacy and loud statements on their pending steps, it’s their business — or I would even say their problem — because the Americans often fail to honor the agreement on doing calm, professional work,” Lavrov said.
The White House said Thursday that the Phoenix Mercury player was being “wrongfully” detained.
President Biden said in a statement that his administration would “continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue” to return Griner and former security consultant Paul Whelan to the United States. Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence of hard labor after being convicted of spying in 2020. He says he was framed.
The Kremlin also warned United States officials on Friday against publicly canvassing the terms of any prison exchange involving WNBA star Griner, saying this could “thwart the entire procedure.”
A day after Griner, 31, was sentenced to 9½ years in prison for carrying less than a gram of cannabis oil into Russia in February, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there would be no prisoner exchanges if officials discussed them in public.
“The Americans have made this mistake,” he said, referring to Blinken’s decision last week to announce that the United States was seeking to exchange Griner and Whelan.
“They have decided for some reason to solve these problems by the megaphone method. This is not how they are solved,” Peskov said, declining to answer questions on whether Moscow was considering an exchange for Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year jail term in the United States.
“These swaps will never happen if we start discussing any nuances of the exchange in the press,” Peskov added.
Blinken spoke to his counterpart Lavrov last week, urging him to accept a deal involving Griner and Whelan. He also issued a statement after Griner’s sentence on Thursday. “This step puts a spotlight on our significant concerns with Russia’s legal system and the Russian government’s use of wrongful detentions to advance its own agenda, using individuals as political pawns,” Blinken said. Securing her release and Whelan’s “is an absolute priority of mine,” he added.
A Russian judge on Thursday rejected the player’s plea for leniency and her apology for “an honest mistake” in bringing the cannabis oil vape cartridges into the country in February. She also was fined 1 million rubles ($16,590).
The sentence — close to the maximum possible in Russia — has fueled anger among the athlete’s fans, who see her as a political pawn between Russia and the United States. Public pressure is also building on the Biden administration to reach a deal with Moscow on a prisoner exchange to bring her home.
Her fate is now in the hands of Putin, who will make the final decision on any prisoner swap.
Peskov declined to comment on Griner’s sentence but when asked about the possibility that she could be granted a presidential pardon, he said, “a certain procedure exists, and the convicted woman can use it in accordance with the law.”
Earlier, Russian foreign ministry officials had said that negotiations on a prisoner swap could not take place until Griner’s trial was complete.