(Reuters) – Russia said Friday it was willing to discuss prisoner exchanges with the United States through an existing diplomatic channel, a day when a Russian court sentenced basketball star Brittney Griner to nine years in prison for a drug offense.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said President Vladimir Putin and his US counterpart Joe Biden had previously agreed on a diplomatic channel to be used to discuss such matters.
“We are ready to discuss this topic, but within the framework of the channel agreed by Presidents Putin and Biden,” Lavrov said during a visit to Cambodia.
“If the Americans decide to resort to public diplomacy again…that’s their business and I’d even say it’s their problem.”
The Kremlin had previously warned the United States not to engage in “megaphone diplomacy” in Griner’s case, saying it could only derail efforts to secure a potential exchange.
Griner’s sentence — which Biden called “unacceptable” — could pave the way for a prisoner swap that will see the 31-year-old athlete and a prolific Russian arms dealer serve 25 years in the United States.
The United States has already made what Secretary of State Antony Blinken called a “substantial offer” to secure the release of Americans held in Russia, including Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan.
‘A SERIOUS PROPOSAL’
White House national security spokesman John Kirby said after Griner’s conviction that the United States had made Russia a serious proposal.
“We urge them to accept it,” he said. “They should have accepted it weeks ago when we first made it.”
Kirby gave no further details about the US proposal.
Washington has offered to trade Russian arms dealer Bout for Griner and Whelan, sources familiar with the situation have told Reuters.
Russia had attempted to add convicted murderer Vadim Krasikov, who was imprisoned in Germany, to the proposed exchange, a source familiar with the proceedings also told Reuters.
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and star of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), was arrested Feb. 17 in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo with vaping cartridges containing hash oil in her luggage.
The United States argued that she was wrongfully detained and used by Moscow as a political bargaining chip. Russian officials rejected the US claims, saying Griner had broken Russian law and should be judged accordingly.
Griner, who had prescribed medicinal cannabis in the United States to relieve the pain of chronic injuries, said she made an honest mistake by accidentally packing her vape cartridges while rushing to make her flight.
She pleaded guilty to the changes against her, but insisted she had no intention of breaking Russian law.
Cannabis is illegal in Russia for both medicinal and recreational purposes.
(Reporting by Reuters; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Mark Heinrich)