By Simon Lewis and Humeyra Pamuk
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States has made “a substantial offer” to Russia to release U.S. citizens detained there, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday, 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 U.S. 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.
“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 characterize how Moscow has so far reacted to the proposal, which he said had U.S. 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 medalist Griner, who has been held since February.
Griner, who was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport with vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage, 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.
Whelan was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison in Russia, accused of spying. He denied spying and said he was set up in a sting operation.
The plight of American detainees has gained visibility after Griner’s arrest and the release in April of former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed at a time when U.S. relations with Moscow are at their worst in decades over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Reed was detained for three years. In a prisoner exchange, the United States commuted the prison sentence of Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was convicted of cocaine smuggling.
Blinken said his planned call with Lavrov, the first such conversation between the two diplomats since before the start of Russian invasion of Ukraine in Feb. 24, will not be a negotiation about Ukraine.
The White House also declined to go into the details of the U.S. proposal but said that Biden directed his national security team to pursue every avenue to bring Griner and Whelan home safely to their loved ones.
“We believe that this is a serious proposal and we want the Russians to take it seriously as well,” said White House spokesperson John Kirby.
Kirby declined to say if Washington was offering a prisoner swap but said the administration was balancing the “need to get these Americans home” with U.S. national security and “that we’re not encouraging hostage taking in the future.”
Whelan’s family welcomed news of the U.S. offer. “We hope the Russian government responds to the U.S. government and accepts this or some other concession that enables Paul to come home to his family,” David Whelan, Paul’s brother, said in a statement.
“The sooner the better,” he added.
(Reporting by Simon Lewis and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Grant McCool and Alistair Bell)