The United States has “put a substantial proposal on the table” to facilitate the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, two Americans detained in Russia, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday.
Blinken plans to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the coming days to personally follow up on the proposal, as well as hold other conversations with Russian officials.
“My hope would be in speaking to Foreign Minister Lavrov, I can advance the efforts to bring them home,” Blinken told reporters during news conference.
The planned meeting would be the first between Blinken and Lavrov since the start of the war in Ukraine, Blinken said. The secretary of State said he will also make appeals on the tentative deal for grain exports reached last week, and ongoing Russian aggression in Ukraine — direct diplomacy on what he characterized as key issues for the U.S. and world.
Blinken declined to confirm specifics of the proposal for Griner and Whelan, including reports of a possible prisoner swap.
Instead, he reiterated a general commitment against wrongful imprisonment of Americans — “truly a horrific practice,” he said.
“The president is prepared to make tough decisions if it means the safe return of Americans,” but at the same time, the administration aims to reinforce a global norm against arbitrary detentions, Blinken said.
Griner is on trial in Russia after being arrested at a Moscow airport in February. She acknowledged in court earlier this month having vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage when she arrived in the country, but she maintains that she had no criminal intent and accidentally packed the cartridges.
Whelan, a former Marine, was detained in December 2018 on espionage charges and sentenced to 16 years in a Russian prison in June 2020. Observers have said the charges were trumped up and violated Whelan’s human rights.
In an interview on Fox News, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said on Wednesday that the U.S. was “working hard on both of those cases.”
“The short answer is we sure hope that the Russians will accept this proposal and that we can get these Americans back home,” Kirby said.
In Blinken’s news conference, he called a recent deal aiming to safely secure Ukrainian grain exports out of ports “a positive step forward.”
“That said, there’s a difference between a deal on paper and a deal in practice,” Blinken said, regarding the possibility of further Russian violence around Ukrainian ports. “We’ll know that soon enough,” he said.
Blinken also touched on the state of the ongoing war, including Russia’s “laying the groundwork” for annexation.
“Unfortunately, Moscow has given no indication it’s willing to engage meaningfully and constructively, and we’re under no illusions that’s going to change anytime soon,” he said. “If and when the time comes, we will bring the full weight of American diplomacy to bear.”