A day after Brittney Griner was sentenced to a Russian penal colony, the top diplomats of the United States and Russia said Friday that their governments were ready to negotiate the release of both the American basketball star and Paul N. Whelan, the who is also imprisoned by Russia.
The diplomats, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Russia, said in separate news conferences that the negotiations would be conducted through a channel established earlier by their two presidents.
However, in a possible sign of how strained relations between the two countries are, the two men made their comments after sitting close to each other – but not speaking – during a meeting of foreign ministers from East Asia and partner countries.
On Thursday Ms Griner was sentenced to nine years by a Russian judge. US officials said she was “detained in error” and that her trial was politically motivated, as relations between the two countries remain strained over Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The Biden administration has offered to free Viktor Bout, a jailed Russian arms dealer, in exchange for Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who was convicted by a Moscow court on espionage charges in 2020, according to people familiar with the proposal. .
After Friday’s meeting, Mr Lavrov took the opportunity to take a jab at Mr Blinken for making no effort to talk to him.
“Today, there was only one person between us at the table,” Mr Lavrov said at a news conference broadcast by the foreign ministry. “I didn’t see him trying to get me.”
When asked about Mr. Lavrov’s statements and Ms. Griner’s conviction, Mr. Blinken stressed that discussions would proceed through the previous channels.
“We have put forward, as you know, a substantial proposal on which Russia will have to cooperate with us,” Mr. Blinken said. “And what Foreign Minister Lavrov said this morning, and he said publicly, is that they are ready to engage through channels that we have set up to do just that, and we will pursue that.”
What you need to know about the Brittney Griner case
Russian officials criticized the United States for what they described as prisoner exchange negotiations in public.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry S. Peskov renewed that criticism on Friday. “These exchanges will never happen if we start discussing any nuances of the exchange in the press,” Mr Peskov told reporters in Moscow.
Despite sending signals that a possible swap is possible, Russian officials have insisted that the legal process must be completed first. After hearing the verdict Thursday, Ms. Griner’s lawyers said they would appeal the sentence, which would delay the start of her time in a penal colony.
In another crucial meeting with potential implications for the war in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin of Russia and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, held their second face-to-face conversation in less than three weeks in the Russian resort town of Black Sea. of Sochi on Friday.
Mr Erdogan has emerged as an important mediator between Ukraine and Russia, which is exploring ways out of the economic and political isolation imposed by the West over its invasion of Ukraine. Turkey, a NATO member and long-disillusioned candidate for EU membership, has been instrumental in brokering a deal between the two warring countries to restart Ukrainian grain shipments via the Black Sea.
In brief remarks before the leaders’ discussion began, Mr Putin thanked Mr Erdogan for Turkey’s role in brokering a Ukrainian grain export deal that also allowed shipments of Russian grain and fertilizer exports. There was a strong focus on economic issues, with Mr Putin expressing hope that the talks would bring strengthened trade and economic ties.
Mr Erdogan said the steps taken on issues such as energy, grain, the Black Sea and transport were examples of the important role Turkey and Russia are playing in the region.
Mr Erdogan is walking a fine line to maintain the ability to talk to both NATO foe Russia and Western members of the alliance. Turkey has maintained its refusal to join Western sanctions against Russia, angering its Nato allies, but Mr Erdogan, in a crucial move, also relaxed his initial objections to Sweden and Finland joining the alliance as bulwark against Russian aggression.
Russia is a critical energy supplier to Turkey, providing a quarter of the country’s crude imports and nearly half of its natural gas purchases last year.
For its part, Turkey is becoming an important transshipment point for goods bound for Russia, now that many Western freight companies are no longer handling Russia-bound shipments for fear of defying sanctions, Turkish newspaper Dunya reported on Thursday.
However, sharp differences remain between the two leaders.
Their countries have supported opposing sides in the civil war in Syria, neighboring Turkey. The Kremlin has spent blood and treasure to support President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey, which has absorbed more than 3.7 million Syrian war refugees, is backing a rival rebel faction and threatening a new military offensive in northern Syria. . They have also been embroiled on opposing sides in the border dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia, which erupted into war in 2020.
Their relationship with weapons is also complicated. In recent years, Turkey has defied its NATO partners to buy Russian anti-aircraft missiles. And now, Russia – starved of war-related Western sanctions over technology such as missile guidance systems and drones – is urgently seeking hardware.
“Military-technical cooperation between the two countries is permanently on the agenda,” Mr Peskov told reporters on Wednesday, according to the Interfax news agency.
Brittney Griner’s plight in Russia
The American basketball star spent months in a Russian prison on charges of smuggling hashish oil into the country.
In Ukraine, officials in the southern city of Mykolaiv announced a drastic move on Friday: The area will be cordoned off and placed under a strict weekend curfew as law enforcement agencies search for associates of the enemy.
The decision comes amid a major escalation in Russia’s shelling of the city, which has had just 20 days without violence since the start of the war on February 24, officials said.
In recent weeks, officials have issued increasingly urgent warnings about the presence of subversive forces in the city, including those responsible for directing enemy fire at military targets.
Vitaliy Kim, the military governor of the Mykolaiv region, urged residents to stock up on food and water and cooperate with any law enforcement officials they encounter over the weekend. Public transport will also be closed.
Mr. Kim did not specify how law enforcement planned to find enemy collaborators, but in recent weeks, he has offered $100 out-of-pocket rewards to citizens who turn in suspected collaborators.
“Honest people have nothing to worry about,” Mr Kim said. “We will work for partners.”
Edward Wong reported from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Neil MacFarquhar from Istanbul and Natalie Kitroeff from Mexico City.