U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says he will speak to his Russian counterpart in the coming days about a “substantial” offer aimed at bringing home American basketball star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, both currently detained in Russia.
Other issues expected to come up between Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov include the implementation of a deal to resume grain exports through Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, and Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
The two top diplomats last spoke in person on February 15, days before Russia launched its military invasion in Ukraine.
At a press conference Wednesday, Blinken said Washington had communicated a "substantial” offer to Moscow in order to bring home Griner and Whelan. He declined to disclose details of the offer.
“With a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate the release [of Whelan and Griner], our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal,” said Blinken, adding that he plans to follow up personally during a phone call with Lavrov.
“My hope would be in speaking to Foreign Minister Lavrov, I can advance the efforts to bring them home,” he said, adding that President Joe Biden has been directly involved and signed off on the U.S. offer.
Griner, who has admitted arriving in Russia in February with vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage, testified at a court hearing Wednesday that a language interpreter provided to her translated only a fraction of what was being said as authorities arrested her.
Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive being held on espionage-related charges that his family contends are bogus, has been held in Russia since late 2018.
Blinken stopped short of confirming media reports speculating that either or both of the Americans could be exchanged for prominent Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, who is jailed in the U.S.
The tentative deal on grain exports that Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the United Nations reached last week is also high on the list of U.S. priorities. U.S. officials urged Moscow to uphold its commitment after Russian missiles struck infrastructure Saturday in Ukraine's port of Odesa – the day after the deal was signed.
Blinken said Russia needs to follow through on its pledge to allow the grain vessels to pass through the Black Sea.
“End this blockade, allow the grain to leave, allow us to feed our people, allow prices to come down. … The test now is whether there's actual implementation of the agreement. That's what we're looking at. We'll see in the coming days.”
Turkish officials have opened a joint coordination center for Ukrainian grain exports and say they expect shipments to begin in the coming days. Kyiv said work had resumed at three Black Sea ports in preparation for the shipments.
At the United Nations, spokesperson Farhan Haq welcomed the opening of the joint coordination center which, he said, will “establish a humanitarian maritime corridor to allow ships to export grain and related foodstuffs” from Ukraine.
Lavrov, wrapping up a four-nation trip to Africa in Addis Ababa, pushed back Wednesday on Western allegations that his country is to blame for the global food crisis. Lavrov said food prices were rising as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and what he called “green policies” pursued by the West.
State Department officials cautioned the expected call between Blinken and Lavrov call does not mean business as usual between the U.S. and Russia, but rather is an opportunity to convey Washington’s concerns clearly and directly.
There is no plan for in-person meetings between the two on the margins of the ASEAN Regional Forum that will be held in Cambodia in early August.
The chief U.S. diplomat said he will warn Lavrov in the phone conversation that Russia must not annex occupied areas of Ukraine as the war enter its sixth month.
On the battlefield, Ukrainian forces have struck a strategically important bridge in the southern part of the country, using what a Russia-appointed official said were rocket systems supplied by the United States.
The Antonivskyi Bridge crossing the Dnieper River was closed Wednesday following the Ukrainian strike.
Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the Russia-appointed administration for the Kherson region, said the bridge was still standing after the late Tuesday strike, but the road deck was full of holes.
Stremousov said Ukrainian forces used the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) to carry out the strike.
The bridge is a key link allowing Russia to supply its forces in southern Ukraine.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, highlighted the bridge strikes in a tweet Wednesday, saying Russian forces should take them as a warning.
Podolyak said the Russians “should learn how to swim across” the river or “leave Kherson while it is still possible.”
Ken Bredemeier, Chris Hannas and Margaret Besheer contributed to this story. Some information came from The Associated Press and Reuters.