The Kremlin acknowledged for the first time Thursday that U.S. and Russian officials are in talks on a swap that would potentially free women’s basketball star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan from Russian jails.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken took the unusual step of publicly revealing late last month that the Biden administration had proposed the prisoner swap, even as Ms. Griner was on her way to being sentenced to 9 1/2 years in jail by a Russian court after being caught with a vape with a small amount of cannabis as she entered the country.
She is imprisoned in Russia as her lawyers pursue an appeal.
Officials have said privately the proposal involved swapping Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan, jailed on espionage charges that his family has denied, in exchange for notorious Russian international arms deal Viktor Bout, serving a 25-year term in a U.S. jail for illicit weapons trafficking.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had previously said Moscow was open to a swap, but Thursday was the first confirmation from the Kremlin that the negotiations were already underway.
“Let me remind you that corresponding competent authorities have been instructed to negotiate the issue. Competent agencies are in talks,” Foreign Ministry Deputy Spokesman Ivan Nechayev told reporters in Moscow Thursday.
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The White House and lawmakers on Capitol Hill have strongly criticized the prosecution of Ms. Griner, but Mr. Nechayev warned against trying to negotiate a deal in the press.
“We would recommend abandoning futile attempts to put pressure on us and we are calling on [U.S. officials] to concentrate on practical work along the available channels. There is no other way,” Mr. Nechayev said.