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Blinken resumes talks with Russia and offers ‘substantive’ deal on prisoners

#Blinken #resumes #talks #Russia #offers #substantive #deal #prisoners

The United States has made a “substantial proposal” to Russia to free Americans, including basketball star Brittney Griner, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday as he announced he was speaking to his Moscow counterpart for the first time since the Ukraine war.

Blinken said he expects a phone call with Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov “in the coming days” about an offer to release former Marine Paul Whelan, as well as Griner – who earlier Wednesday told a court that she had unintentionally introduced banned drugs.

The couple “were wrongly arrested and must be allowed to return home,” Blinken told reporters.

“We tabled a major proposal weeks ago to facilitate their release. Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly about this proposal and I will use the conversation to follow up personally,” he said.

Citing the sensitivity, Blinken declined to go into detail or confirm reports that the United States was offering to trade her for Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms smuggler.

The United States and Russia have already carried out a prisoner swap in the heat of the Ukraine war: In April, Washington swapped former US Marine Trevor Reed for convicted drug smuggler Konstantin Yaroshenko.

President Joe Biden is facing mounting pressure to free Griner, who faces up to 10 years in prison and whose wife previously accused the government of doing too little.

Whelan, a security guard at an auto parts company, was arrested in Moscow in December 2018 and sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison for espionage, which he denies.

In a statement, Whelan’s family expressed appreciation for the Biden administration’s efforts and hoped Russia would accept “this concession or another” for its freedom.

– No negotiations on Ukraine –

The phone call will be the first between Blinken and Lavrov since February 15, when the top US diplomat warned Russia about an invasion of Ukraine.

President Vladimir Putin attacked nine days later, prompting the United States and its allies to impose sweeping sanctions and try to isolate Russia on the world stage.

The talk “will not be a negotiation about Ukraine,” Blinken told reporters.

“Any negotiation about Ukraine is up to its population and its people,” he said.

Blinken said the United States – which has pumped billions in military aid to Ukraine – has “no illusions” that Russia is ready to engage “sensibly and constructively” to end the war.

“In the meantime, we will continue to do everything we can to strengthen Ukraine’s position on the battlefield,” he said.

Blinken said he will urge Russia to fulfill a landmark deal struck in Turkey last week to allow Ukrainian grain to be unblocked after a lockdown sent global food prices skyrocketing.

“Hundreds of millions of people are waiting for these ships to leave Ukrainian ports,” Blinken said.

He also said he would warn of further consequences should Russia annex more Ukrainian territory. Moscow seized Crimea in 2014 and declared the peninsula part of Russia, a decision not recognized by most parts of the world.

The White House recently said Russia was laying the groundwork for “sham referenda” in territories it has conquered, possibly as early as September.

Blinken specifically declined to meet Lavrov when they both attended the Group of 20 talks in Bali earlier this month, with the United States bringing together its allies to criticize Russia at the closed-door sessions.

– Griner says no intention to break the law –

Griner, a two-time Olympic basketball champion and women’s NBA champion who played in Russia, was arrested just days before Moscow’s offensive began.

She has pleaded guilty to drug offenses of possession of vape cartridges containing cannabis oil.

At her trial in Khimki, just outside Moscow, Griner said she still doesn’t know how the cartridges got into her pocket and has no intention of using them.

“I have neither thought nor planned to bring banned substances into Russia,” said Griner, who wore a Phoenix Mercury t-shirt and black basketball shorts.

“I had no intention of breaking Russian law,” she added, saying she was in a rush to pack and tired after recovering from Covid.

“I would not do anything that would harm my team.”

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#Blinken #resumes #talks #Russia #offers #substantive #deal #prisoners

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