U.S. diplomats are “actively engaged” with their Russian counterparts to secure the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and fellow American Paul Whelan, possibly in a prisoner swap.
"We have to see if the engagements that we've had, the discussions that we have, produced an actual result. That's the most important thing, but we are not resting on the laurels of having put forward a proposal some months ago. We've been actively engaged over these many months to try to move things forward," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday, Dec. 4, on CBS News’ Face the Nation.
On Aug. 4, a Russian court found Griner guilty on cannabis possession charges and sentenced her nine years in prison. Two months later, a Moscow court rejected her appeal to reduce or throw out her nearly decade-long sentence.
A Russian diplomat said in November that the two sides could reach a prisoner swap agreement this year that could bring home Griner and Whelan, a former U.S. Marine detained in Russia since 2018 on alleged espionage charges.
“Regrettably, there have been a few occasions when it seemed that a decision in favor of it was about to be made, but it never happened. There is always a chance,” Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters, according to the New York Post.
In July, Bliken announced that the United States put forward a "substantial proposal" to bring Griner and Whelan home, CBS News reported. Russian news outlets speculated that a prisoner swap would include Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States.
But Blinken has declined to discuss details of a potential prison swap, and State Department spokesman Vedant Patel complained that Russia has "consistently failed to negotiate in good faith."
Still, the administration “will not stop” negotiating until Griner and Whelan are brought home, Blinken told Face the Nation host Margaret Brennan.
"We've been engaged repeatedly, in any way that we can, to try to advance it and to look to see if there are different permutations that could achieve what we're trying to achieve, which is to get our people home," Blinken added.
Griner, an Olympic gold medalist and center for the Phoenix Mercury, who plays basketball in Russia during the WNBA off season, was detained in Russia in February after her arrest at Sheremetyevo Airport near Moscow for allegedly carrying hashish oil vape cartridges in her luggage. She pleaded guilty to drug charges on July 7. But she has said the vape cartridges were in her luggage mistakenly, and she didn’t intend to commit a crime.
Griner was taken to a penal colony in the Russian region of Mordovia, approximately 300 miles southeast of Moscow.
“Brittney’s biggest fear is that she is not exchanged and will have to serve the whole sentence in Russia,” Griner’s attorney said after a Russian court rejected her appeal.