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Blinken says U.S. made Russia a "substantial proposal" for release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan

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U.S. offers Russia deal for Griner and Whelan
U.S. offers Russia deal for Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan 02:11

The U.S. has put forward a "substantial proposal" to Russia aimed at securing the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday, offering the first public glimpse at U.S. efforts to bring the pair home.

"In the coming days, I expect to speak with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov for the first time since the war began," Blinken said. "I plan to raise an issue that's a top priority for us: the release of Americans Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner, who have been wrongfully detained and must be allowed to come home. We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release. Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal."

Blinken said President Biden has been "directly involved," and he "signs off on any proposal that we make, and certainly when it comes to Americans who are being arbitrarily detained abroad, including in this specific case." The conversation between Blinken and Lavrov will be their first interaction since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

A White House official said Wednesday that "a high-level official" had reached out to the families of both Griner and Whelan ahead of Blinken's announcement and "is having conversations with them today and tomorrow."

Griner was arrested on February 17 at a Moscow airport when customs officials said they found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. Whelan has been in Russian custody since December 2018, when he visited Russia for a friend's wedding. He was convicted in a Russian court of espionage charges and sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020.

Whelan's family members welcomed news of the offer, saying they "hope the Russian government responds to the U.S. government and accepts this or some other concession that enables Paul to come home to his family."

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WNBA basketball superstar Brittney Griner arrives to a hearing at the Khimki Court, outside Moscow on July 27, 2022.  KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images

Russian media outlets have speculated that Griner could be included in a prisoner swap for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S. for conspiring to sell weapons to people who intended to kill Americans. On Wednesday, Blinken repeatedly declined to comment on a CNN report that the U.S. offered Bout in exchange for Griner and Whelan.

Steve Zissou, an attorney for Bout, said in a statement that "this is a sensitive moment in these negotiations, so out of respect for the process and the families involved, I have no further comment at this time."

Mr. Biden did approve a prisoner exchange in another case in April, when Russia released former Marine Trevor Reed, who had been detained in Russia since 2019 on charges of assaulting two police officers and whose health was failing. The U.S. freed Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was serving a 20-year prison sentence for drug smuggling. 

Griner, who played in Russia during the WNBA off-season, pleaded guilty to drug possession and smuggling charges on July 7, telling a Moscow court that she brought the substance into the country accidentally. 

She spoke at her trial on Wednesday, saying that the vape cartridges "ended up in my bags by accident ... and I take responsibility but I did not intend to smuggle or planned to smuggle [banned substances] to Russia." Griner faces up to 10 years behind bars if convicted.

In the weeks following her arrest, Griner's allies remained mostly quiet about her case, believing that Russian President Vladimir Putin would seek to leverage her celebrity as he waged war in Ukraine. Griner was detained less than a week before Russia invaded, pushing U.S.-Russia relations to a low point.

In May, the State Department said it determined that Griner was being wrongfully detained. Under a 2020 law, the classification shifted the handling of her case to the State Department's special presidential envoy for hostage affairs. 

Griner's wife, Cherelle, has since begun speaking out more publicly, calling her a "political pawn" and urging Mr. Biden to do more to secure her release.

"Initially I was told ... 'We're going to try to handle this behind the scenes and let's not raise her value and, you know, stay quiet,'" Cherelle Griner told "CBS Mornings" on July 6. "I did that, and respectfully, we're over 140 days at this point. That does not work." 

In a call with Cherelle Griner later that day, Mr. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris reassured her that the administration was working to secure Griner's release "as soon as possible," according to a White House readout of the conversation. Mr. Biden also read Cherelle Griner a draft of the letter he was sending to Brittney Griner in response to a letter the WNBA star had written him, pleading with him not to forget about her and other captives. 

"I'm terrified I might be here forever," wrote Griner in her letter to Mr. Biden. 

As public pressure grew on Mr. Biden to secure the release of Griner, families of other detainees became frustrated with the lack of attention the cases of their loved ones had received from the president. 

Whelan's family said they were "astonished" after Mr. Biden called Cherelle Griner, but not them. Mr. Biden eventually called Whelan's sister, Elizabeth, after the family sought a meeting with the president for months. 

"President Biden assured me that the U.S. government was doing all it could to bring Paul's safe return from his wrongful detention in Russia," the family said in a July 9 email. "We spoke for several minutes and I was touched by the president's obvious concern and empathy for Paul's plight and the Whelan family's distress." 

On Wednesday, the family said they "appreciate[d] the Biden Administration seeking Paul's release using the resources it has available."

Melissa Quinn and Arden Farhi contributed to this report. 

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