WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he intends to speak with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about a “substantial” deal to free imprisoned Americans Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, and a person familiar with the offer said it would swap them for imprisoned Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Blinken’s planned engagement with Lavrov, announced in comments to reporters Wednesday, would come amid continuing sharp exchanges over the war in Ukraine. Blinken spoke with Lavrov on Feb. 15 and then canceled a planned meeting with his counterpart two days before Russia launched its invasion on Feb. 24. They haven’t spoken since.
Whelan, a former BorgWarner Inc. global security chief, was convicted of spying in 2020 and has been in Russian custody far longer -- since 2018. President Joe Biden spoke with Whelan’s sister this month, pledging to continue working for his release and that of other Americans wrongfully detained abroad.
The Biden administration has declined to comment on whether it would agree to release Bout, a Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year prison sentence in the US, as part of a swap for women’s basketball star Griner and Whelan, a former U.S. Marine. The U.S. previously had spurned the possibility of an exchange to free Bout, saying he was guilty of extensive illicit arms sales.