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Brittney Griner: US Seeking Prisoner Swap With Russia To Release WNBA Star

The Biden administration has offered a deal to Russia aimed at bringing home WNBA star Brittney Griner and another jailed American, ex-US marine Paul Whelan, the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said on Wednesday.

In a sharp reversal of previous policy, Blinken also said he expects to speak with his Kremlin counterpart for the first time since before Russia invaded Ukraine.

The statement marked the first time the US government has publicly revealed any concrete action it has taken to secure the release of Griner, who was arrested on drug-related charges at a Moscow airport in February and testified on Wednesday at her trial.

Blinken did not offer details on the proposed deal, which was offered weeks ago, though it is unclear if it will be enough for Russia to release the Americans.

But the public acknowledgment of the offer at a time when the US has otherwise shunned Russia reflects the mounting pressure on the administration over Griner and Whelan and its determination to get them home.

Blinken said Washington would like a response from Moscow. Russia has for years expressed interest in the release of Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer once labeled the “Merchant of Death”, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012 on charges that he schemed to illegally sell millions of dollars in weapons.

Blinken said he had requested a call with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. US officials said the desire for an answer on the prisoner offer was the primary, but not only, reason that the US on Wednesday requested the call with Lavrov.

Should the call take place, it would be the first conversation that Blinken and Lavrov have held since 15 February, about a week before Russia invaded Ukraine.

Blinken said he would also be speaking to Lavrov about the importance of Russia complying with a United Nations-brokered deal struck in Turkey last Friday to free multiple tons of Ukrainian grain from storage, and warning him about the dangers of possible Russian attempts to annex portions of eastern and southern Ukraine.

Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan, was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison on espionage charges. He and his family have vigorously asserted his innocence. The US government has denounced the charges as false.

Griner, in Russian custody since the spring, acknowledged in court this month that she had vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage when she arrived in Moscow in February to play basketball in Russia, but contends she had no criminal intent and packed the cartridges inadvertently.

At her trial on Wednesday, Griner said she did not know how the cannabis oil ended up in her bag but explained she had a doctor’s recommendation for it and had packed in haste. She faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of transporting drugs.

The US government has long resisted prisoner swaps out of concern that it could encourage additional hostage-taking and promote false equivalency between a wrongfully detained American and a foreign national regarded as justly convicted.

But an earlier deal in April, in which the US marine veteran Trevor Reed was traded for the jailed Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, appeared to open the door to similar resolutions in the future. The Biden administration has been hounded with political pressure to bring home Griner and other Americans designated as unjustly detained.

There was no indication that Blinken and Lavrov had communicated to secure Reed’s release.

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