President Joe Biden on Friday said that he was "hopeful" about efforts to bring home American basketball star Brittney Griner.
"We're working hard," Biden said at an event signing a pair of bills aimed at catching pandemic business loan cheats.
The president's comments come hours after the Kremlin said that it's open to talking about a possible prisoner exchange involving Griner, but strongly warned Washington against publicizing the issue.
What You Need To Know
- President Joe Biden on Friday said that he was "hopeful" about efforts to bring home American basketball star Brittney Griner, adding that his administration is "working hard" to return her to the U.S.
- Hours earlier, the Kremlin said that it is open to talking about a possible prisoner exchange involving Griner, but strongly warned Washington against publicizing the issue
- A judge convicted the 31-year-old Griner Thursday of drug possession and smuggling, and sentenced her to nine years in prison
- U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke last week to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov about a trade to free Griner, and the two of them were both in Cambodia for an Asian summit on Friday
- Lavrov said Moscow was "ready to discuss" a prisoner swap but that U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir only could talk about a deal via confidential channels
Griner, a two-time U.S. Olympic champion and an eight-time all-star with the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury, has been detained in Russia since Feb. 17 after police at Moscow's airport said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage.
A judge convicted the 31-year-old athlete Thursday of drug possession and smuggling, and sentenced her to nine years in prison. The politically charged case comes amid high tensions between Moscow and Washington over Russia's military action in Ukraine.
In an extraordinary move, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke last week to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, urging him to accept a deal under which Griner and Paul Whelan, an American jailed in Russia on espionage charges, would go free.
Lavrov and Blinken were both in Cambodia on Friday for a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Blinken did not even glance at his Russian counterpart as they took their seats at an East Asia Summit.
Lavrov told reporters that Blinken didn't try to contact him while they were attending the ASEAN meeting.
"We were separated by just one person at the discussion table, but I didn't feel his desire to catch me. My buttons are all in place," he said when asked about Washington's statement that Blinken would try to buttonhole Lavrov for a quick interaction in Phnom Penh.
Lavrov said Moscow was "ready to discuss" a prisoner swap but that the topic should only be discussed via a dedicated Russia-U.S. channel that U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to establish when they met in Geneva in June 2021.
"If the Americans again try to engage in public diplomacy and make loud statements about their intention to take certain steps, it's their business, I would even say their problem," Lavrov said. "The Americans often have trouble observing agreements on calm and professional work."
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre appeared to agree at a briefing later Friday, saying "we've been very clear that we're not going to negotiate in public."
"We wanted to be very upfront about what we were doing," she said. "That's why we mentioned the substantial offer, and we expect, or we advise, Russia to to take it seriously."
"It is important for Brittney to come home," she continued. "It is important for Paul Whelan to come home. The president is going to work every day very hard with his national security team to make that happen, and also with the other U.S. nationals who are being who are being wrongfully detained and held hostage. We are showing that this is a top of mind and a priority for this administration."
Reporters also asked Jean-Pierre if there were any specifics behind Biden's "hopeful" comment.
"We have made a substantial offer to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home. They need to be home. They should be home. They are being wrongfully detained."
"Foreign Minister Lavrov said publicly that they are prepared to engage through the channels we have established the President's direction," she continued, adding that "we will continue to pursue those," but "we have to keep the negotiations private."
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov made the same point more harshly, saying "the U.S. already has made mistakes, trying to solve such problems via 'microphone diplomacy.' They are not solved that way."
He, too, emphasized that any discussions on a possible trade should be held via the previously established confidential channels that Putin and Biden agree to during last year's summit.
"Such mechanisms exist, but they will be thrown into doubt if the discussion continues in the public domain," Peskov said. He said: "If we discuss any nuances related to the issue of exchange via media, no exchange will ever take place."
People familiar with the U.S. proposal have said it envisions trading Griner and Whelan for a notorious Russian arms trader, Viktor Bout. He is serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. after being convicted of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.
The call between Blinken and Lavrov marked the highest-level known contact between Washington and Moscow since Russia sent troops into Ukraine more than five months ago, underlining the public pressure that the White House has faced to get Griner released.
Griner was arrested as she was returning to play for a team in Russia, where she has competed since 2014. Blinken said Friday that her conviction and sentence "compounds the injustice that has been done to her."
"It puts a spotlight on our very significant concern with Russia's legal system and the Russian government's use of wrongful detentions to advance its own agenda using individuals as political pawns," he said.
On Thursday, Biden denounced the Russian judge's verdict and sentence as "unacceptable" and said he would continue working to bring Griner and Whelan home.