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Washington and Moscow ready to negotiate over Griner, officials say

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, right, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, are seated close together during an east Asia summit foreign ministers meeting at Sokha Hotel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Friday, Aug. 5, 2022. Blinken is on a ten day trip to Cambodia, Philippians, South Africa, Congo, and Rwanda.Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — One day after Brittney Griner was sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony, the top diplomats of the United States and Russia said Friday that their governments were ready to negotiate over securing the freedom of both the American basketball star and Paul Whelan, a former US Marine who is also imprisoned by Russia.

Speaking at separate news conferences, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the negotiations would be conducted through a special channel. That appeared to be a reference to an agreement between President Biden and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, reached at a summit in Geneva last year, to negotiate prisoner and hostage exchanges.

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But in a possible measure of how fraught the countries’ relations are, Blinken and Lavrov made their comments after sitting close to each other — but not talking — during a meeting in Cambodia of foreign ministers from East Asia and partner countries.

Griner was convicted and sentenced on a drug charge by a Russian judge in a courtroom outside Moscow on Thursday. US officials have said that Griner was “wrongfully detained” and that her trial was politically motivated. Tensions between the two countries remain high over Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The Biden administration has offered to free Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer imprisoned in the United States, in exchange for Griner and Whelan, people familiar with the proposal have said. Blinken and the State Department have not publicly divulged details of the proposal.

After the meeting Friday, Lavrov needled Blinken for not making any effort to talk to him.

“Today, there was only one person between us at the table,” Lavrov said at a news conference broadcast by the Foreign Ministry. “I didn’t see him trying to catch me.”

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Asked in the afternoon about Lavrov’s assertion that Blinken had not approached him, Blinken said only that talks would take place through the channel cited by Lavrov.

“We put forward, as you know, a substantial proposal that Russia should engage with us on,” Blinken said. “And what Foreign Minister Lavrov said this morning, and said publicly, is that they are prepared to engage through channels we’ve established to do just that, and we’ll be pursuing it.”

Lavrov and Blinken spoke last week about the potential for a prisoner swap, according to people familiar with the conversation. At the time, Lavrov criticized the United States for what he described as trying to negotiate a prisoner exchange in public.

Russian officials have insisted that the legal proceedings in Griner’s case be completed before negotiations on an exchange. On Thursday, Griner’s attorneys said they would appeal the sentence, which might delay talks.

Blinken said Friday that Griner’s conviction “puts a spotlight on our very 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. The same goes for Paul Whelan.”

Whelan is a former Marine who was convicted by a court in Moscow of espionage charges in 2020 after first being detained in 2018.

Russia has long sought the release of Bout, who was arrested in a 2008 sting by the Drug Enforcement Administration in Thailand and convicted in the United States of conspiring to kill US citizens. He is believed to have close ties to Russian intelligence and the upper echelons of Putin’s circle.

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While there is widespread US support for administration efforts to secure the release of Griner and Whelan, some critics have said that Bout’s release would be an unwarranted capitulation. They fear that Russia and other countries will be encouraged to seize Americans to gain leverage over the United States.

A regularly scheduled basketball game Thursday evening between Griner’s Phoenix Mercury team and the Connecticut Sun began with 42 seconds of silence, a length of time matching her Jersey number. Afterward, the teams and crowd broke into a lengthy chant of “Bring her home!”

Material from The Washington Post was used in this report.