Blinken: US offered Russia ‘substantial proposal’ for release of Brittney Griner, Paul Whelan

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that officials “put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago” to secure the release of former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan and WNBA star Brittney Griner, who are both classified as having been wrongfully detained by Russia.

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Blinken said he planned to bring the detentions up with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who he is soon speaking with for the first time since the country sent troops to Ukraine in February.

“Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal, and I’ll use the conversation to follow up personally and, I hope, move us toward a resolution,” the secretary of state said.

Blinken did not elaborate on the proposal put forth by officials, though CNN reported that authorities are offering to exchange Whelan and Griner for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. In 2012, Bout – who was once known as the “Merchant of Death” – was sentenced to 25 years in prison on charges that he planned to illegally sell weapons, according to The Associated Press.

Update 9:08 p.m. EDT July 27: In addition to the CNN story, The New York Times reported that a person briefed on the conversation -- who spoke on condition of anonymity “to discuss sensitive diplomatic negotiations” -- said the U.S. made the offer to Russia to trade Bout for Griner and Whalen in June.

Original report: Sources told CNN that officials discussed the possibility of offering to trade Bout for Whelan and Griner for weeks before the deal got the approval of President Joe Biden earlier this year.

Officials did not immediately confirm reports of the proposed swap.

Wearing a sweatshirt bearing the name of her WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury, Griner appeared in a Russian courtroom on Wednesday and reiterated her attorneys’ claims that she did not mean to break the law in February when she brought vape cartridges that contained hashish oil into Russia.

“I still don’t understand to this day how it got in my bags,” she said, according to NPR. She told the court that she was in a rush to pack after recovering from COVID-19 when she accidentally included the vape cartridges, Reuters reported. She was traveling to the country to join her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, which she plays for during the U.S. offseason, according to Reuters.

In court, Griner described the confusion she felt in February when she was detained at a Moscow airport. She said that her rights were not read to her, as required by Russian law, and that she was told to sign documents without any explanation of what the documents were, The Washington Post reported. She said that the language barrier prompted her to use Google Translate to try to understand what she was signing, according to NPR.

“I was told what to do, but not why or what it means,” she said, NPR reported.

The two-time Olympic gold medalist added that she asked to leave the customs area to get on another flight because she hadn’t realized she was being detained, according to the Post. The newspaper reported that officials told her that she could not go, and her passport was taken.

Earlier this month, Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges, though her attorneys said that she hadn’t meant to break any laws. She faces a maximum sentence of 10 years at a Russian penal colony, the New York Times reported.

Griner’s arrest came one week before Russia sent troops into Ukraine and sparked fears that her detainment could be politically motivated. In May, the State Department classified Griner as having been wrongfully detained by Russia. Officials have vowed to bring her and Whelan, who has been held for alleged espionage since 2018, back to the U.S., CNN reported.

“We’re very focused on bringing Brittney and Paul home,” Blinken said Wednesday.

In a letter sent earlier this month, Griner urged Biden not to forget about detained Americans and to “please do all you can to bring us home,” according to the Times.

“I’m terrified I might be here forever,” she wrote.