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Blinken, Lavrov report no progress after discussing prisoner swap

Secretary Antony J. Blinken in a virtual U.S. Embassy London meet and greet on May 4, 2021. (State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have spoken by phone to discuss a possible prisoner swap that could involve American basketball star Brittney Griner and Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Blinken described the call on July 29 as “a frank and direct conversation” centered primarily on detained Americans. In addition to Griner, Blinken has said the United States is pressing for the release of former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan.

“I urged Foreign Minister Lavrov to move forward with that proposal,” he said. “I can’t give you an assessment of whether that is any more or less likely.”

Blinken on July 28 publicly requested the call and revealed the existence of a “substantial proposal” on a prisoner swap involving Whelan and Griner.

U.S. and Russian media have reported that the United States could seek their release in exchange for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms trader currently serving a 25-year sentence in the United States after being convicted of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said Lavrov and Blinken discussed a prisoner swap and other issues, including Ukraine, during the call.

“Concerning possible exchange of prisoners with the United States, the Russian side strongly recommended the sides return to professional dialogue in the regime of quiet diplomacy, without speculations and fakes,” the ministry said, according to TASS.

There was no reference in the statement to a news report saying Russia has requested the release of a former colonel from the Federal Security Service (FSB) who has been convicted of murder in Germany.

The Russians communicated the request for the release of Vadim Krasikov to the United States earlier this month through an informal backchannel used by the spy agency, CNN reported on July 29.

Krasikov, aka Vadim Sokolov, was sentenced to life in prison on December 15 for the murder of an ethnic Chechen of Georgian nationality in a Berlin park in August 2019.

Prosecutors had alleged that the gunman was an officer in Russia’s FSB secret service.

Blinken also said he pressed Lavrov on the importance of Russia following through on an agreement to allow Ukrainian grain shipments to leave the Black Sea and warned him of consequences should Moscow move ahead with suspected plans to annex portions of eastern and southern Ukraine.

Blinken said he told Lavrov that the world will “never recognize” any annexation of Ukrainian territory, which he said would “result in significant additional costs for Russia.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry statement said Lavrov repeated Russia’s vows to keep fighting until it has achieved its aims in Ukraine. It said that Lavrov also renewed complaints about Western countries supplying arms and military aid.

Lavrov also accused the United States of not keeping up its end of agreements on the grain shipments from Ukraine.

Griner, a star of the Women’s National Basketball Association, is being held on drug-smuggling charges. She faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted. Whelan, a corporate security executive, was sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges in 2020. He denies the charges.