US steps up efforts to secure release of Brittney Griner from Russia

US secretary of state Antony Blinken said he plans to speak with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in a bid to advance a “substantial proposal” to release basketball star Brittney Griner and former marine Paul Whelan.

In a press conference at the state department on Wednesday, Blinken said: “We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release. I’ll use the conversation to follow up personally and I hope move us toward a resolution.”

The call would be the first time the top diplomats have spoken since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.

The US is waiting for Russia to decide on the offer, which was first made several weeks ago, said John Kirby, a top spokesman for the US National Security Council.

“We hope that Russia will favourably engage on it,” Kirby said. “We believe that this is a serious proposal and we want the Russians to take it seriously as well.”

In April, Russia released former US marine Trevor Reed in a prisoner swap. Washington is looking to negotiate a similar deal to bring Griner and Whelan home to the US.

Russia is pushing for the exchange of Viktor Bout, an arms trafficker serving a 25-year sentence, for Griner and Whelan, according to Bout’s lawyer. Blinken declined to confirm whether that offer had been made, saying he did not want to detail efforts to secure their release.

Griner pleaded guilty earlier this month to drug possession and smuggling charges after medical cannabis was found in her luggage upon arrival in Russia in February, but said in testimony on Wednesday that she had not intended to break the law.

Griner told the court that she had packed in a hurry and did not plan to bring the drugs into the country, according to her lawyer Maria Blagovolina, partner at Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners law firm. She said she has a prescription for medical cannabis.

Griner faces up to 10 years in prison after Russian police said they found traces of hash oil in her vaping cartridges when she arrived in the country to play off-season basketball.

In May, the state department upgraded Griner’s case to classify her as “wrongfully detained”, giving the chief US hostage negotiator the task of securing her release.

Whelan has been in Russian custody since 2018 and was later convicted of espionage. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison and has said he is innocent. Whelan is a US citizen who also holds a British passport.

In the call with Lavrov, Blinken will also discuss a deal between Russia and Ukraine to allow the export of Ukrainian grain from Odesa as well as Moscow’s plans to annex parts of Ukrainian territory it has taken control of during the conflict.

Blinken said it would soon become clear whether Russia is serious about abiding by its commitments in the grain agreement.

“If the Kremlin signed this deal to look reasonable to the world without any intention of following through, we will know that soon enough,” he said.

Russia and Ukraine agreed last week in Turkey to a deal that would allow Ukrainian food exports to resume and avoid the threat of a global food crisis. Insurance contracts for the grain exports were signed on Wednesday and separately a centre for co-ordinating grain exports was opened in Istanbul.

But Russia’s commitment to the accord was called into question when it carried out a series of missile strikes on the port of Odesa just a day after signing it.

Moscow has repeatedly indicated that it plans to annex Kherson and other parts of south-eastern Ukraine it controls under what the White House last week described as “sham referenda”.

“We must and we will act quickly to make clear to Russia that these tactics will not work,” Blinken said.

Ukrainian forces on Wednesday destroyed a strategic bridge in the Kherson region as part of their efforts to retake the south in a counterattack.

Additional reporting by Polina Ivanova in London

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