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    Friday, October 07, 2022

    In rare contact, U.S. offers Russia deal for Griner, Whelan

    WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is escorted to a courtroom for a Wednesday hearing in Khimki, just outside Moscow. (Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool Photo via AP)

    Washington — The U.S. has offered a deal to Russia aimed at bringing home WNBA star Brittney Griner and another jailed American, Paul Whelan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday. In a sharp reversal of previous policy, Blinken also said he expects to speak with his Kremlin counterpart for the first time since before Russia invaded Ukraine to discuss the deal and other matters.

    Blinken's comments marked the first time the U.S. government has publicly revealed any concrete action it has taken to secure the release of Griner, who was arrested on drug-related charges at a Moscow airport in February and testified Wednesday at her trial. He did not offer details on the proposed deal outlined to the Russians, though a person familiar with the matter said the U.S. government has offered to trade convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Whelan and Griner.

    The person insisted on anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.

    Though it is unclear if the proposal will be enough for Russia to release the Americans, the public acknowledgment of the offer at a time when the U.S. has otherwise shunned Russia reflects the mounting pressure on the administration over Griner and Whelan and its determination to get them home.

    It also signals a growing acceptance by the White House of prisoner swaps as resolutions for cases of Americans jailed overseas, particularly after a trade in April that secured the release of Marine veteran Trevor Reed and yielded a much-needed publicity win for the administration.

    "We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release. Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal, and I'll use the conversation to follow up personally and, I hope, to move us toward a resolution," Blinken said.

    President Joe Biden, who authorized the Reed prisoner swap after meeting with his parents, signed off on the deal the U.S. offered in this case, officials said.

    "The president and his team are willing to take extraordinary steps to bring them home," John Kirby, a White House national security spokesman, told reporters.

    Should the call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov take place, it would be the first conversation that the men have held since Feb. 15, about a week before Russia invaded Ukraine. U.S. officials said the desire for an answer on the prisoner offer was the primary, but not only, reason that the U.S. on Wednesday requested a new call with Lavrov.

    "There is utility to conveying clear, direct messages to the Russians on key priorities for us," including the release of Griner and Whelan,“ Kirby said. They also include "what we're seeing and hearing around the world is a desperate need for the foods, the desperate need for prices to decrease."

    Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan, was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison on espionage charges. He and his family have vigorously asserted his innocence. The U.S. government has denounced the charges as false.

    Griner, in Russian custody for the last five months, acknowledged in court that she had vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage when she arrived in Moscow in February but contends she had no criminal intent and packed the cartridges inadvertently.

    At her trial Wednesday, Griner said she did not know how the cannabis oil ended up in her bag but explained she had a doctor's recommendation for it and had packed in haste. She said she was pulled aside at the airport after inspectors found the cartridges, but that a language interpreter translated only a fraction of what was said during her questioning and that officials instructed her to sign documents without providing an explanation.

    Griner faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of transporting drugs.

    U.S. officials for months had sought to deflect criticism over the apparent lack of momentum in the Griner and Whelan cases by saying that work was proceeding in secret and out of public view. That stance made Wednesday's announcement all the more startling, but Kirby said the administration had decided to make clear that a deal was on the table.

    "We believe it's important for the American people to know how hard President Biden is working to get Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan home," he said.

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