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Kremlin ready to discuss prisoner swap with US after Brittney Griner sentenced to 9 years in Russian prison

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Brittney Griner.
Brittney Griner.AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool

The Kremlin said on Friday that it is ready to discuss a prisoner exchange with the United States just one day after WNBA star Brittney Griner was convicted of drug smuggling and sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison.

"There is a special channel that has been agreed upon by the presidents, and no matter what anyone says publicly, this channel remains relevant," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters in Cambodia, according to state-run news agency RIA Novosti.

Brittney Griner.
Griner is escorted to her final court appearance in Russia.Kirill Kudryavtsev/Pool via REUTERS

Lavrov added: "If the Americans decide to resort to public diplomacy again and make loud announcements, statements that they are now going to take such and such steps, this is their business, their problem," the report said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's top diplomat made the comments at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters at the same event on Friday that the United States will pursue discussions with Russia.

"We put forward, as you know, a substantial proposal that Russia should engage with us on," Blinken said, per CNN. "And what Foreign Minister Lavrov said this morning and said publicly is that they are prepared to engage through channels we've established to do just that. And we'll be pursuing that."

Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Last week, news broke that the Biden administration had proposed a prisoner swap in which they offered to release convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for the return of both Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan. Blinken confirmed that a deal was put forward in June but hesitated to offer further details on the negotiations.

Known as the "Merchant of Death," Bout is infamous for supplying rebel groups and terrorist organizations with weapons that fueled bloody wars across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. However, his 2008 arrest in Thailand was not actually based on charges for the high-stakes trafficking operations that have since served as inspiration for several movies, documentaries, and books.

Instead, he has been in foreign custody for over a decade after he was caught in a US Drug Enforcement Agency sting operation. American officials lured the elusive arms distributor to engage with purported representatives of a Colombian guerilla group.

DEA agents escort Viktor Bout (center) off the plane after he was extradited to the United States.
DEA agents escort Viktor Bout (center) off the plane after he was extradited to the United States.U.S. Department of Justice via Getty Images

He offered to sell weapons to the rebels, even with the understanding that the materials could have been used to kill Americans. Soon after, Bout was arrested in Bangkok and, following an extended legal battle and protests from the Russian government, extradited to the United States.

Nearly four years after his initial capture, Bout was convicted of a trio of crimes and handed his minimum 25-year sentence. But the Hon. Shira A. Scheindlin, a then-federal judge for the US District Court for the Southern District of New York who ruled on the case, has since said that "the sentence was too high in the first place."

"It was mandatory. I had no discretion," she told Insider in early July. "I had to give the sentence I gave."

Viktor Bout.
Bout.PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP via Getty Images

The Russian government has since lobbied hard for Bout's return, and Russian media have repeatedly linked him to potential prisoner swaps with several jailed Americans.

Even so, the Kremlin's counteroffer to the Biden administration's proposed swap pushed for more; Moscow wants the US to help free an additional convict — a Russian national who was tried, sentenced, and imprisoned for murder in Germany.

John Kirby, the Biden administration's National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications, slammed the Kremlin's counteroffer as "a bad faith attempt to avoid a very serious offer and proposal that the United States has put forward."

John Kirby.
John Kirby, the National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications, speaks during a White House press briefing.REUTERS/Leah Millis

"Holding two American citizens hostage in exchange for an assassin in a third-party country is not a serious counteroffer," Kirby said, adding: "We urge Russia to take [our] offer seriously."

Moscow officials responded with a warning that "loudspeaker diplomacy" wouldn't succeed in bringing the detained Americans home. The exchange seemed to signal that the US and Russia were still quite far from agreeing to a deal.

But with public pressure on the administration mounting as Griner faces the prospect of nearly a decade at a Russian penal colony, the White House and US State Department will almost certainly act with increased urgency to bring the eight-time WNBA All-Star home.

Read the original article on Insider