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The Kremlin announced on Friday that it’s open to talking about a possible prisoner exchange involving American basketball star Brittney Griner but strongly warned Washington against publicizing the matter, according to ABC News.
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 state a vape cartridge containing cannabis oil was found in her luggage.
On Thursday, the court sentenced her to nine years in prison, only one year shy of the 10-year maximum. She also faces a fine of $1 million rubles, roughly $16,300.
For months, the U.S. State Department has labeled Griner “wrongfully detained.” Thursday’s guilty verdict now paves the way for a potential prisoner swap, as Russian authorities have previously said no negotiations would take place until the end of Griner’s trial.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke last week with 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 both go free.
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.
Russia remains adamant to set the terms of negotiation for Griner’s return.
“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.”
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.
While the matter may be negotiated in private, public supporters of Griner in the U.S. will likely continue to demand her release even if Russia prefers to operate with clandestine intention.
Information in this article was obtained via ABC News.