Thursday, December 7

Lavrov, Blinken discuss Griner, prisoner exchange and Ukraine invasion


Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke by telephone about a US proposal to secure the release of two American prisoners, but neither side reported progress in what Blinken called “a frank and direct conversation.”

The top US diplomat also said he warned the Kremlin during the Friday conversation not to proceed with its plans to annex additional territory in Ukraine.

“I’m not going to characterize [Lavrov’s] response” to what the Biden administration has called a “substantial offer” in exchange for the release of basketball star Brittney Griner and security consultant Paul Whelan from a Russian prison, Blinken said at a news conference with his visiting Japanese counterpart. “And I can’t give you an assessment of whether I think things are any more or less likely. But I thought it was important that I heard directly from me on that.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that “concerning a possible exchange of Russian and US citizens held in detention, the Russian side strongly proposed returning to a professional dialogue in ‘quiet diplomacy’ mode, without spreading speculations.”

Bilateral relations, the statement said, “urgently require normalization.”

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The statement appeared to confirm reports that the Biden administration has proposed an exchange involving the notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, 55, who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in Illinois for conspiring to kill US nationals and selling weapons to terrorists.

The Biden administration Friday dismissed as “not serious” an informal counteroffer to include the release of another Russian, Vadim Krasikov, in a potential exchange. That offer was reportedly made through intelligence channels several weeks ago by Russia’s FSB state security agency, and was first reported by CNN. Convicted last year of gunning down a Chechen opposition figure in Berlin in 2019, Krasikov is currently imprisoned in Germany. Authorities there have said Krasikov was operating on behalf of the FSB.

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“Holding two wrongfully detained Americans hostage for the release of a Russian assassin in a third country’s custody is not a serious counter-offer,” National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement. “It is a bad faith attempt to avoid the deal on the table that Russia should take.”

On Wednesday, Blinken publicly revealed that the administration had communicated an unspecified offer to Russia several weeks ago, but said Moscow had not responded. He said he had requested a call with Lavrov, and other US officials expressed the hope that a direct conversation would spur a Russian reaction.

Blinken and Lavrov had not spoken to each other since they met in Geneva on Jan. 21, in a last-ditch US diplomatic effort to dissuade Russia from invading Ukraine.

In the Friday call, Blinken said, he also “laid out exactly what we anticipate [Russia] will do in the weeks and months ahead, including having sham referendums” in parts of southern Ukraine currently occupied by Russian troops, and ultimately to annex the area.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s objective, Blinken said, is “trying to erase Ukraine as a sovereign country. That, of course, is not going to happen. … Not only will it not be accepted, it will result in significant additional costs imposed upon Russia if it follows through.”

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“I don’t want to characterize any of Foreign Minister Lavrov’s responses,” Blinken said. “If you have an opportunity to ask him, please proceed.”

Lavrov indicated in public comments this week that the occupied Ukrainian territories will be part of Russia and would be annexed, as was Crimea in 2014.

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In its statement, the Foreign Ministry said that Lavrov told Blinken that Russia’s “goals and objectives will be achieved in full.”

“In this context,” the statement said, Lavrov drew Blinken’s attention “to the US and NATO continuing to supply Ukraine’s Armed Forces and national battalions with weapons, which are then used on a massive scale against civilian population, only prolonging the agony of the Kyiv regime, protracting the conflict and multiplying its victims.”

Lavrov, the statement said, stressed that “Russia’s Armed Forces strictly comply with international law and systemic efforts have been organized in the liberated areas to return to peaceful life.”

Blinken told reporters he also pressed for Russian compliance with a deal, negotiated with the United Nations and Turkey and signed last week by Russia and Ukraine, to allow Ukrainian grain exports to pass unhindered through its substantial naval force in the Black Sea.

The Russian Navy has blocked Ukrainian ports, including Odessa, the main Black Sea export hub. Under the agreement, which is to be monitored by UN and Turkish officials, ships are to be allowed along a designated exit corridor, and to be subject to inspection on return to make sure they are not carrying arms. Russian missiles struck Odessa the day after the agreement was signed, and it has not yet been implemented.

Many countries, particularly in the developing world, depend on Ukrainian and Russian grain exports, and Washington and Moscow have traded accusations on who is responsible for rising levels of hunger in Africa. In a four-nation tour of Africa earlier this week, Lavrov said that US sanctions were preventing grain exports from the Black Sea.

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Lavrov’s charge “would be laughable if it wasn’t so tragic for the people who live in Africa,” John Kirby, the NSC director of strategic communications, said in response.

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