The United States will “pursue” a prisoner swap with Russia for U.S. citizens Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in Cambodia Friday morning.
Blinken’s comment came as he was asked about remarks Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made regarding a potential prisoner swap at the foreign ministers meeting at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.
“We put forward, as you know, a substantial proposal that Russia should engage with us on. 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,” Blinken said during a press conference at ASEAN.
The announcement comes a day after WNBA star Brittney Griner was sentenced by a Russian court to nine years in prison for marijuana possession.
Blinken was asked to respond to Lavrov, who said he was not expecting to hear from Blinken but was surprised when Blinken did not reach out.
“With regard to Brittney Griner and to Paul Whelan, a few things on that. I think first we’ve all seen the sentencing conviction of Brittney Griner to nine years in prison and that further compounds the injustice that’s being done to her and her wrongful detention,” Blinken said.
He added: “It puts a spotlight on our very significant concern 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.”
Earlier in the day, Lavrov said Russia was “ready to discuss” a trade of prisoners through diplomatic channels as a private framework was previously “agreed upon by” Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Biden.
Lavrov said Russia is “ready to discuss this topic, but within the framework of the channel that has been agreed by the presidents.”
“If the Americans decide to once again resort to public diplomacy… that is their business and I would even say that it is their problem,” Lavrov said at ASEAN.
“On the matter of persons who are convicted in Russia and in the United States… there is a specified channel that has been agreed upon by the presidents,” Lavrov added during the press conference. “No matter what anyone says publicly, this channel will remain in effect.”
Russia previously warned the U.S. not to engage in “megaphone diplomacy” as it would derail ongoing negotiations.
President Biden issued a statement denouncing Griner’s detention and called the prison sentence “unacceptable.”
“I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates,” President Biden said. “My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring [her] home safely as soon as possible.”