Russia comments on convict swap with US
“Thunderous” public remarks by US officials on the possibility of exchanging American citizens convicted for crimes in Russia are not what is needed to negotiate such an exchange, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Friday. Moscow is prepared to discuss the issue, but only in the proper way, he said.
“There is a specialized channel that was agreed upon by the presidents [of Russia and the US]. Whatever public statements whoever makes, this channel remains relevant,” he said.
Lavrov was commenting on remarks made by several US officials after a Russian court handed US basketball player Brittney Griner a nine-year prison sentence for drug offenses. US President Joe Biden reiterated that he believed the athlete had been “wrongfully detained” by Russian authorities after vape cartridges with cannabis oil were found in her luggage during a customs check. Griner claimed that she packed the substance, which is banned in Russia, but not many parts of the US, by mistake.
Washington wants Moscow to free her and another US citizen, former Marine Paul Whelan, who was convicted of espionage in Russia in 2020. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reportedly offered to exchange them for Viktor Bout, a Russian businessman, who is serving a 25-year sentence after being convicted in 2012 on gun-running charges. According to US media, Lavrov made a counterproposal when he and Blinken discussed the issue on the phone last week.
Lavrov was speaking to journalists on Friday after attending an ASEAN summit in Cambodia, where the discussion could have been continued in person. John Kirby, a senior White House official, told MSNBC on Thursday that if Blinken “has an opportunity to ‘buttonhole’ Mr Lavrov, he will do so.”
The top Russian diplomat said no such discussion took place, joking that Kirby “probably forgot to pass on the instruction.”
“We sat at the discussion table one person apart and I didn’t see any interest in catching me by anything on [Blinken’s] part. All my buttons are fine,” Lavrov remarked.
Kirby’s choice of words prompted some mirth in Russia, with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova suggesting that grabbing Lavrov by his tie or trousers would do a better job of capturing his attention.