Russia says prisoner exchange talks with US ongoing, but no concrete results yet

(From left) Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout and Americans Brittney Griner, a basketball star, and Mr Paul Whelan, a former US Marine. PHOTO: AFP

MOSCOW (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - Negotiations between Moscow and Washington on exchanging prisoners are ongoing, but have not yielded any results yet, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova said on Thursday (July 28).

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday (July 27) he would speak with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov by phone to secure the release of Americans Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan by swapping them with imprisoned Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

The Biden administration has declined to comment on whether it would agree to release Bout, a Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States, as part of a swap for women's basketball star Griner and Mr Whelan, a former US Marine.

The US previously spurned the possibility of an exchange to free Bout, saying he was guilty of extensive illicit arms sales.

At the White House, Mr John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council, told reporters, "I'm not going to negotiate this thing in public, and I'm not going to talk about specific individuals."

Ms Griner, a player for the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury who plays for a Russian team during the off-season, was arrested in February after Russian customs officials said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage.

She pleaded guilty to smuggling charges this month, saying the infraction was unintentional, in a move that could pave the way for a prisoner exchange.

Although Ms Griner has attracted global headlines, Mr Whelan, who was convicted of spying in 2020, has been in Russian custody far longer - since 2018.

President Joe Biden spoke with Mr Whelan's sister this month, pledging to continue working for his release and that of other Americans wrongfully detained abroad.

"We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release," Mr Blinken said on Wednesday of Ms Griner and Mr Whelan. "Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal."

Mr Blinken said he intends to use the conversation with Mr Lavrov "to follow up personally and, I hope, move us toward a resolution".

Relatives of both Mr Whelan and Ms Griner have criticised the Biden administration over the length of their family members' detentions and Washington's apparent inability to secure their release.

"Our family appreciates the Biden administration seeking Paul's release using the resources it has available," Mr Whelan's brother David said in an e-mailed statement.

"We hope that the Russian government responds to the US government and accepts this or some other concession that enables Paul to come home to his family."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.