No agreement yet on prisoner swap between Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, according to Russia

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RIGA, Latvia — Russia said Thursday that no concrete agreement had been reached in prisoner release talks with the United States, a day after Secretary of State Antony Blinken said a ” substantial proposal” had been made in Moscow to release two imprisoned Americans: WNBA star Brittney Griner and security consultant Paul Whelan.

“There are no finalized agreements yet,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Blinken said Wednesday that a proposal was made to the Kremlin “weeks ago” for the release of Griner and Whelan, although he did not specify its terms or whether there had been a response. “Our governments have communicated several times and directly on this proposal,” he added.

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Peskov expressed surprise on Thursday at the United States’ break with the diplomatic silence that normally surrounds prisoner release negotiations.

“It is known that when discussing these issues, information is not normally released,” he told reporters, adding that announcements are usually made “about the agreements that have been reached”.

Blinken’s comments fueled speculation that any deal could be a potential prisoner swap involving notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, 55, nicknamed the “dealer of death”.

Bout, whose savage exploits once inspired a Hollywood film starring Nicolas Cage, is serving a 25-year sentence in Illinois for conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals and selling weapons to terrorists.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova did not comment on Thursday whether Russia was in talks on exchanging Bout for Griner and Whelan.

However, she said Russia’s interests must be taken into account as well as those of the United States, while reiterating that no “concrete results” had been achieved in the negotiations to release the prisoners.

The Kremlin has long pushed for Bout’s release since his arrest in Thailand in 2008, saying his conviction in a New York court in 2011 was “unlawful”. Blinken would not say whether Bout was part of the deal offered to Russia.

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In a dramatic shift in diplomatic demeanor, Blinken also said he would speak to his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, “in the coming days.” It would be their first call since the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, and the purpose would be to discuss the release of detained Americans, among other pressing issues such as grain and natural gas.

“A few weeks ago a substantial proposal was on the table to facilitate their release,” Blinken told reporters. “And I will use the conversation to follow up personally, and hopefully bring us to a resolution.”

If that happens, the prisoner swap would be the second such deal made by the Biden administration.

In April, former US Marine Trevor Reed, who was convicted in 2020 of assaulting two Russian police officers, returned home in exchange for the release of Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was jailed for drug trafficking in the United States. United States.

The exchange showed that Washington and Moscow could still reach agreements even amid the Ukraine war and White House efforts to economically and politically isolate Russia on the world stage.

Proposal for Griner, Whelan follows history of US-Russian prisoner exchanges

Griner, 31, who played in a Russian league during the WNBA offseason, has been detained since February on drug trafficking charges after Russian authorities found two cannabis oil vape cartridges in her luggage at the airport. from Moscow.

Griner pleaded guilty to the charges this month and told a Moscow court on Wednesday that she had no intention of bringing the vape cartridges to Russia and was rushed and stressed during the process. ‘packaging. She must then appear in court on August 2 and faces up to 10 years in prison.

Whelan, 52, denies the espionage charges against him and says he was set up. His twin brother, David Whelan, told The Washington Post on Thursday that his parents speak to Paul “almost daily” and that it “would mean the world” to his family if he came home.

“He didn’t call yesterday, so we don’t know what he knows. Most likely, he will have seen something on Russian TV in the labor colony, and other prisoners will translate Russian for him,” he said. he declared.

“We are grateful that the Biden administration appears to be acting more decisively on the issue of wrongfully detained Americans,” he added.

During the April swap for Reed, Biden described the tough choices that come with prisoner swaps. “The negotiations that allowed us to bring Trevor home involved tough decisions that I don’t take lightly,” Biden said at the time.

Earlier this month, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned that demagoguery by US officials on prisoner swaps would only increase tensions and hamper possible interactions over prisoner swaps.

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“We are aware of the attempts by the United States to escalate tensions publicly and draw attention to themselves, but they are not helpful in finding a practical solution to the problem,” he told reporters. Ryabkov hinted there were possibilities for talks of a prisoner swap, but he said that could not happen until formal legal proceedings were completed.

Suliman reported from London. Mary Ilyushina and Natalia Abbakumova contributed to this report.

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