US says ‘substantial offer’ on the table for Russia to release detainees Griner, Whelan

WASHINGTON: The United States has made “a substantial offer” to Russia to release US citizens detained there, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday (Jul 27), adding that he would be pressing his Russian counterpart to respond in a conversation planned for the coming days.

Washington offered Moscow a deal to bring home WNBA star Brittney Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan weeks ago, Blinken said at a State Department news conference, and hoped to advance the process when he speaks to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Russia’s foreign ministry said it had not been formally approached by Washington to set up a phone call, Tass news agency said later on Wednesday.

“There was 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 move us toward a resolution,” Blinken said.

He declined to say what the United States was offering in return. CNN reported that Washington was willing to exchange Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25 year-prison sentence in the United States, as part of a deal to secure the release of the two Americans.

A Russian lawyer for Whelan has previously said he believed Moscow wanted Bout to be part of a prisoner swap for Whelan.

Blinken declined to characterise how Moscow has so far reacted to the proposal, which he said had US President Joe Biden’s sign off.

PRESSURE ON BIDEN

Families of hostages and detainees have been increasing pressure on Biden, most recently in the case of two-time Olympic medallist Griner, who has been held since February.

Griner, who was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport with vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggauge, was in the courtroom on Wednesday in the latest hearing of her ongoing trial on drug charges. The next hearing is set for Aug 2.

“From a legal point of view, an exchange is only possible after a court verdict,” Griner’s lawyer in Russia, Maria Blagovolina, said in a statement to Reuters.