The Biden administration has offered a deal to Russia aimed at bringing home basketball star Brittney Griner and another jailed American Paul Whelan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.
In a sharp reversal of previous policy, Mr Blinken also said he expects to speak to his Kremlin counterpart for the first time since before Russia invaded Ukraine.
The statement marked the first time the US government has publicly revealed any concrete action it has taken to secure the release of WNBA player Griner, who was arrested on drug-related charges at a Moscow airport in February and testified on Wednesday at her trial.
- WNBA’s Griner says rights were not explained in Russia arrest
- LeBron James criticises US handling of Griner situation on his TV show
Mr Blinken did not offer details on the proposed deal, which was offered weeks ago, though it is unclear if it will be enough for Russia to release the Americans.
But the public acknowledgment of the offer at a time when the US has otherwise shunned Russia reflects the mounting pressure on the administration over Griner and Whelan, a corporate security executive jailed on espionage charges in 2020, and its determination to get them home.
Mr Blinken said Washington would like a response from Moscow.
Russia has for years expressed interest in the release of Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer once labelled the “Merchant of Death” who was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012 on US charges that he schemed to illegally sell millions of dollars in weapons.
Mr Blinken said he had requested a call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. US officials said the desire for an answer on the prisoner offer was the primary, but not only reason that the US on Wednesday requested the call with Mr Lavrov.
Should the call take place it would be the first conversation that the pair have held since February 15. About a week before Russia invaded Ukraine.
Mr Blinken said he would also be speaking to Mr Lavrov about the importance of Russia complying with a UN-brokered deal to free multiple tons of Ukrainian grain from storage and warning him about the dangers of possible Russian attempts to annex portions of eastern and southern Ukraine.
Griner, in Russian custody for the last month, acknowledged in court this month that she had vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage when she arrived in Moscow in February but contends she had no criminal intent and packed the cartridges inadvertently.
At her trial on Wednesday, Griner said she did not know how the cannabis oil ended up in her bag but explained she had a doctor’s recommendation for it and had packed it in haste.
She said she was pulled aside at the airport after inspectors found the cartridges, but that a language interpreter translated only a fraction of what was said during her questioning and that officials instructed her to sign documents without providing an explanation. Griner faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of transporting drugs.