U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, announced on Wednesday that he intends to talk soon with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, for the first time since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
This telephone conversation, scheduled “in the next few days (…), will not be a negotiation on the topic of Ukraine” but will focus on U.S. nationals imprisoned in Russia and the resumption of Ukrainian grain exports, Blinken stated during a press conference.
“I plan to raise a topic that is a priority for us: the release of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner who were wrongfully arrested and should be allowed to return home,” he said.
“We put a reasonable offer on the negotiating table a few weeks ago to facilitate these releases,” Blinken added, declining to specify what the American offer consisted of.
The former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, urged the administration of President Joe Biden to exchange the two American detainees for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer imprisoned in the United States.
Basketball player Brittney Griner was arrested at Moscow Airport in February after “electronic cigarettes” and a “liquid with a special smell” of cannabis oil were found in her carry-on luggage, according to the Russian federal customs service. She faces up to 10 years in prison.
Former U.S. soldier Paul Whelan, a former security officer at an auto parts company, imprisoned since 2018, continues to maintain his innocence after being sentenced to 16 years in prison in Russia for espionage.
Blinken added that he intends to discuss with the Russian foreign minister the agreement between Kyiv and Moscow concluded last week in Istanbul, through the mediation of Turkey and under the auspices of the U.N., to allow the delivery abroad of approximately 25 million tons of grain currently blocked in Black Sea ports.
“We hope that this agreement will quickly allow Ukrainian grain to be shipped through the Black Sea again and that Russia will honor its promise to allow these ships to pass through,” he said.
However, Ukrainian officials have repeatedly stated that they do not trust Moscow to ensure the security of the convoys and recall the firing of Russian missiles on the Odesa port on Saturday.
The Kremlin, for its part, declared that it does not see any obstacles to the resumption of exports, made even more difficult by the presence of maritime mines laid by Ukrainian forces to defend against a Russian amphibious assault.
The de-mining operation will take place only “in the corridor necessary for exports,” according to Kyiv.
The last telephone conversation between the two ministers took place on Feb. 15, when Antony Blinken warned Russia against an invasion of Ukraine. Nine days later, Russian forces entered Ukrainian territory, prompting the United States and its allies to impose a series of financial sanctions to isolate Moscow internationally.