PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – A day after Brittney Griner was sentenced in a Russian penal colony, top diplomats from the United States and Russia said on Friday that their governments were ready to negotiate on both the American basketball star and Paul N. Whelan. , who is also imprisoned by Russia.
Diplomats, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking at separate press conferences, said the negotiations would be conducted through a channel previously established by their two presidents. But in a possible indication of how strained relations between the two countries are, the two men made their comments after sitting close – but not speaking – at a meeting of East Asian and partner country foreign ministers.
Ms. Griner received a nine-and-a-half-year sentence from a Russian judge in a courtroom outside Moscow on Thursday. American officials said Ms. Griner was “unfairly detained” and that her trial was politically motivated as tensions between the two countries remain high over Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The Biden administration has offered to release Viktor Bout, a jailed Russian arms dealer, in exchange for Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan, people familiar with the proposal said. Mr. Blinken and the State Department have not publicly disclosed the details of the proposal.
After the meeting on Friday, Mr. Lavrov took the opportunity to criticize Mr. Blinken for not making any effort to speak to him.
“There was only one person among us at the table today,” Mr. Lavrov said in a press conference broadcast by the foreign ministry. “I didn’t see him while she was trying to get me.”
Asked in the afternoon about Ms. Griner’s conviction and Mr. Lavrov’s claim that Mr. Blinken had not approached him, Mr. Blinken only said that the talks would take place through the channel Mr. Lavrov cited.
“We have, as you know, put forward a substantial proposal that Russia should engage with us,” Blinken said. “And what Foreign Minister Lavrov said this morning, and he said publicly, is that they are ready to engage through the channels we have established to do just that, and we will pursue it.”
Mr. Lavrov and Mr. Blinken spoke last week about the potential prisoner exchange, with negotiations taking place through a special channel set up for that purpose, according to people familiar with the conversation. At the time, Mr. Lavrov criticized the United States for what he described as an attempt to negotiate a prisoner swap in public.
Both Mr. Lavrov and Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov renewed their criticism on Friday. “These exchanges will never happen if we start discussing any nuances of the exchange in the press,” Peskov told reporters in Moscow. “The Americans have made this mistake. They decided for some reason to solve these problems with the megaphone method. ”
In their comments on a diplomatic channel, both sides appeared to refer to an agreement between President Biden and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, reached at a summit in Geneva in June last year, to negotiate prisoner and hostage exchanges.
Despite sending signals that a potential trade is possible, Russian officials have insisted that due legal process must be completed first. After hearing the verdict on Thursday, Ms. Griner’s lawyers said they would appeal the sentence, which could further extend the trial.
Trevor R. Reed, a former US Marine sentenced to nine years in prison after being accused of assaulting a Russian police officer, spent more than two years in Russian custody before being exchanged for a convicted Russian pilot in April.
Mr. Blinken said Friday that Ms Griner’s conviction “highlights our very significant concerns about the Russian legal system and the Russian government’s use of illegal detentions to advance its agenda, using individuals as pawns. policies. The same goes for Paul Whelan. “
Mr. Whelan is a former US Marine convicted by a Moscow court of espionage in 2020 after being arrested for the first time in 2018.
On Thursday, John Kirby, a White House national security spokesman, said he expected Blinken to try to talk to Lavrov about American prisoners during the meeting in Phnom Penh.
“I have no doubt that if he has the opportunity to bite Mr. Lavrov, he will,” Kirby said. “And if he doesn’t, if it doesn’t just happen organically, I’m sure Secretary Blinken will get in touch and have that communication.”
When a conversation didn’t take place, Mr. Lavrov seemed to be trying to tweak Mr. Blinken on not talking to him, saying, “All my buttons are fine.”