A top official in Russia suggested last week that the American basketball star Brittney Griner’s detention could be approaching a resolution, but officials in the United States quickly dismissed those claims.
Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, said on Friday that there was fresh “activity” surrounding a potential prisoner swap involving Griner, who was transferred to a Russian penal colony earlier this month, and Viktor Bout, the Russian arms dealer currently serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States.
Ryabkov’s comments were quoted in Russian media.
“We haven’t found common ground yet, but, undoubtedly, Viktor Bout is among those being discussed and obviously we are hoping for a positive result,” Ryabkov said, as reported on by ESPN. “The Americans are showing certain activity and we are working on this through appropriate channels.”
But the State Department splashed cold water on that, saying that Russia has not been a serious party to the negotiations.
“We are not going to comment on the specifics of any proposals other than to say that we have made a substantial offer that the Russian Federation has consistently failed to negotiate in good faith,” a State Department spokesperson said, as quoted by ESPN. “The U.S. Government has continued to follow up on that offer and propose alternative potential ways forward with the Russian government. The Russian government’s failure to seriously negotiate on these issues in the established channel, or any other channel for that matter runs counter to its public statements.”
The U.S. has proposed a prisoner swap with Russia that would secure the release of both Griner and Paul Whelan, a United States citizen who has been held in Russia since 2018 on espionage charges, in exchange for Bout. But so far, a deal has yet to materialize.
Griner, a star for the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA, has been detained in Russia since February, when she was arrested in a Moscow airport on drug charges (officials found cannabis oil in her luggage).
Griner pleaded guilty to the charges in July, but said it was a mistake and that she did not intend to break the law. In August, Griner was convicted by a Russian court, which sentenced her to nine years in prison.
Last month, the court denied Griner’s appeal.
Earlier this month, Griner’s lawyers confirmed that their client had been transferred to a Russian penal colony.
U.S. officials met with Griner earlier this month for the first time since her arrest in February, when she was returning to Russia to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg, a team for which which she has played during the WNBA’s offseason since 2014.
“We are told she is doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances,” the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre said regarding the meeting.
“As we have said before, the U.S. government made a significant offer to the Russians to resolve the current unacceptable and wrongful detentions of American citizens Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan,” Jean-Pierre added. “I can also tell you that in the subsequent weeks, despite a lack of good faith negotiation by the Russians, the U.S. government has continued to follow up on that offer and propose alternative potential ways forward with Russians through all available channels.
President Joe Biden, who met with Griner’s family members in September, said in a news conference following the midterm election earlier this month that he is hopeful Russian President Vladimir Putin will be willing to negotiate a release.
“My hope is that now that the election is over, that Mr. Putin will be able to discuss with us and be willing to talk more seriously about a prisoner exchange,” Biden said.