U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday said he has held a telephone conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and pressed the Kremlin to accept the ‘substantial proposal’ that Washington has put forward to secure the release of two Americans detained in Russia.
“We had a frank and direct conversation,” Blinken told a news conference at the State Department. “I pressed the Kremlin to accept the substantial proposal that we put forth on the release of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner,” he said.
The United States this week announced that it made an offer to Russia, weeks ago, to secure the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan but did not reveal what it was offering.
A source familiar with the situation said 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.
In their first such conversation since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, Blinken said he also emphasised to Lavrov that the world expected Russia to fulfil its commitments under a deal with Ukraine struck in Turkey to reopen grain and fertiliser exports that have been blocked by war.
Earlier on Friday during a visit to Uzbekistan, Lavrov said he would talk to Blinken when he returned to his office.
The two top diplomats had not spoken since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.
Families of the U.S. detainees have been increasing pressure on President Joe Biden, most recently in the case of two-time Olympic gold medallist Griner, who was arrested on drugs charges at a Moscow airport on Feb. 17.
Lavrov told a news conference that talks on prisoner exchanges had been taking place since a summit in Geneva last year where President Vladimir Putin and Biden had agreed to nominate officials to look into the issue.
“It’s clear this is unlikely to work out today. But in the coming days we will offer our American colleagues a convenient date,” Lavrov said.
There was no immediate comment from the Russian Foreign Ministry on Blinken’s announcement of his call with Lavrov.