US and Russia head for swap talks with Brittney Griner after Lavrov says Kremlin is ‘ready’

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The United States will “pursue” a prisoner exchange with Russia for American citizens Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in Cambodia on Friday morning.

Blinken’s comment came as he was asked about the remarks Sergei Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister regarding a possible prisoner exchange at the meeting of foreign ministers at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.

“We have put forward, as you know, a substantial proposal that Russia should engage with us. And what Foreign Minister Lavrov said this morning and said publicly is that they are ready to engage through the channels we have established to do just that, and we will continue,” Blinken told an ASEAN news conference.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken takes part in a press conference after attending events during the 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Phnom Penh on August 5, 2022.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken takes part in a press conference after attending events during the 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Phnom Penh on August 5, 2022.
(TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP via Getty Images)

The announcement comes a day after WNBA star Brittney Griner was sentenced by a Russian court to nine years in prison for possession of marijuana.

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Blinken was asked to respond to Lavrov, who said he didn’t expect to hear from Blinken but was surprised when Blinken didn’t reach out.

“As for Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, a few things about that. First I think we’ve all seen Brittney Griner’s condemnation of nine years in prison and this further compounds the injustice done to him and his wrongful detention,” Blinken said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (center) and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) attend the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers' Meeting during the 55th Meeting of the ASEAN foreign ministers in Phnom Penh on August 5, 2022.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (center) and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) attend the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers’ Meeting during the 55th Meeting of the ASEAN foreign ministers in Phnom Penh on August 5, 2022.
(ANDREW HARNIK/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

He added: “This highlights our very serious concern about the Russian 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 for Paul Whelan.”

BRITTNEY GRINER PLEADS GUILTY IN RUSSIA, BUT EXPERTS WARN NEXT STEPS MAY HAVE SERIOUS CONSEQUENCES

Earlier in the day, Lavrov said Russia was “ready to discuss” a trade in prisoners through diplomatic channels, with a private framework previously “agreed upon by” Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Biden.

Lavrov said Russia was “ready to discuss this topic, but within the framework that was agreed by the presidents.”

“If the Americans decide to resort to public diplomacy again…that’s their business and I would even say that’s their problem,” Lavrov told ASEAN.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov speaks during a news conference in Moscow, Russia, Monday, June 6, 2022.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov speaks during a news conference in Moscow, Russia, Monday, June 6, 2022.
(Russian Foreign Ministry press service via AP)

“As for people convicted in Russia and the United States … there is a specific channel that has been agreed by the presidents,” Lavrov added at the press conference. “No matter what anyone says publicly, this chain will remain in effect.”

Russia has previously warned the United States not to engage in “megaphone diplomacy” as it would derail ongoing negotiations.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken attends the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers Meeting during the 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Phnom Penh on August 5, 2022.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken attends the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers Meeting during the 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Phnom Penh on August 5, 2022.
(TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP via Getty Images)

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President Biden released a statement denouncing Griner’s detention and called on 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 explore all possible avenues to bring [her] man safely as soon as possible.”