LONDON (Reuters) - Russia said on Thursday there was no deal yet with the United States on swapping detained U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner and a former Marine for an imprisoned Russian called by American prosecutors one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States has made a “substantial offer” to Russia to release American citizens held in Russia. A source said that Washington was willing to exchange convicted arms trafficker Viktor Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov expressed surprise at the public remarks from Blinken. Russia has cautioned the United States that such discussions are best conducted in private.
“So far, there are no agreements in this area,” Peskov told reporters in Moscow. “When discussing such topics, you don’t conduct information attacks.”
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova indicated that talks on prisoner exchanges had been going on for some time but without a result.
U.S. President Joe Biden has come under growing pressure in recent months from the families of American hostages and detainees who have urged him to intervene personally to bring home their loved ones. This might explain the U.S. decision to make the negotiations public. The U.S. offer was made weeks ago.
“The fact that now, several weeks later, we are where we are, I think you can read into that as being a reflection of the fact that this has not moved to the extent we would like,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price told a daily briefing.
Price added that Russia has acknowledged a U.S. request to have a phone call between Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and that the United States still is expecting the call to take place in the coming days.
The Interfax news agency cited Zakharova as saying Lavrov has a busy schedule and will address the request when he has time.
For the two former Cold War foes, now grappling with the worst relations in a generation due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the exchange would mark one of the more extraordinary prisoner swaps in their history.
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medallist and a Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) star, was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on Feb. 17 with vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.
Griner has pleaded guilty to the charges against her but has denied that she intended to break Russian law.
“I do plead guilty because of the actions that have happened but again, I did not intend to smuggle or bring any substance into Russia,” Griner told a Russian court on Wednesday.
Griner said she still did not understand how the vape cartridges containing hashish oil could have ended up in her luggage. The next hearing is set for Aug. 2. Griner is unlikely to be swapped until there is a verdict, which could happen by mid-August, her lawyers said.