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WNBA star Brittney Griner, who has been detained in Russia on drug-related charges since February, could soon return to the U.S. after Secretary of State Antony Blinken revealed Wednesday that the Biden administration has offered a “substantial proposal” for the return of the basketball player and for fellow American Paul Whelan.
Blinken said during a press conference that the Biden administration made the proposal weeks ago and is hoping to speak to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for the first time since Feb. 15.
“In the coming days, I expect to speak with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov for the first time since the war began. I plan to raise an issue that’s a top priority for us: the release of Americans Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner, who’ve been wrongfully detained and must be allowed to come home,” Blinken said Wednesday.
“We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release,” he continued. “Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal. And I’ll use the conversation to follow up personally and I hope move toward a resolution.”
Blinken did not offer details on the nature of the proposal, but the possibility of a prisoner swap has been rumored since Griner’s trial began.
One name mentioned is Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death,” who is serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. after being convicted of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.
Experts have warned about a deal including Bout over the consequences it may have on American travelers.
Hugh Dugan, an American academic and longtime diplomat who served as the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs under the Trump administration, told Fox News Digital earlier this month that a deal including Bout wouldn’t be “proportionate” based on Griner’s charges alone.
“When we get to swapping something like this with a hardened terrorist, the proportionality is not the same,” said Dugan. “And that’s always a big concern in negotiation that we don’t devalue our person to the point where the next day that same country will take another one of our tourists and another American innocently walking around for the sake of leveraging against some major foreign policy asset that we hold of theirs.”
Griner pleaded guilty to a drug-smuggling charge earlier this month, adding that her “intent” was not to violate Russian law. The U.S. State Department has classified Griner as “wrongfully detained.” She acknowledged she had vape cartridges containing oils derived from cannabis with her but had no intention of breaking the law. She could face up to 10 years in prison.
“I can tell you that it’s topmost in the president’s mind, as is the fate of Americans who are unjustly detained around the world, not just in Russia,” National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby said following Blinken’s announcement. “Certainly, there’s a lot of focus on Mr. Whalen and Mrs. Griner. We understand that. And we’re working very, very hard on both their cases. So, I mean, the short answer is we sure hope that the Russians will accept this proposal and that we can get these Americans back home to their families where they belong.”
Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan, was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison on espionage charges. He and his family have vigorously asserted his innocence. The U.S. government has denounced the charges as false.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.