Blinken urges Russian foreign minister to accept proposal for swap of Brittney Griner, Paul Whelan

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in a “frank and direct conversation” about the “substantial proposal” that the U.S. has put forward in an attempt to secure the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, Blinken said Friday during a press conference. 

This is the first time the U.S. and Russian counterparts have spoken since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Blinken said he pressed the Kremlin to accept the proposal. “I’m not going to characterize his response, and I can’t give you an assessment of whether I think things are any more or less likely, but it was important that he heard directly from me on that.” 

Russia has had the proposal “for some weeks now.” He did not confirm the identity of any Russians who would be swapped for Griner and Whelan, but CNN has reported that Russia wants convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. On Wednesday, Blinken declined to comment on the reports. 

Griner was arrested on Feb. 17 at a Moscow airport, when customs officials said they found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. Whelan has been in Russian custody since December 2018, when he visited Russia for a friend’s wedding. He was convicted in a Russian court of espionage charges and sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020.

Blinken also urged Russia to fulfill its commitments on the Ukraine grain deal, adding that U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink was in Odessa Friday morning, where “she confirmed the ships are loaded and ready to go.” He said it was important that Lavrov hear it from him that the world expects “that Russia would move forward with its commitments and would stop, end the blockade and allow the ships to sail.”

Less than 24 hours after Russia struck a long awaited deal with Ukraine, Turkey and the United Nations on allowing grain shipments to leave Ukrainian ports, Russian missiles hit Odessa, a port city on the Black Sea.

“In case of non-fulfillment, Russia will bear full responsibility for a global food crisis,” Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko said.

There was no indication that Lavrov was willing to talk with Blinken about ending the six-month conflict. Blinken said he saw “no opening — willingness on the part of Russia to engage meaningfully on ending the aggression.”

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