(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State Antony Blinken hasn’t spoken to his Russian counterpart since the Kremlin invaded Ukraine more than five months ago, and now that he wants to do so, Moscow does not appear to be in any hurry.
Blinken said at a press briefing on Wednesday that he expects to speak to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov “in the coming days.” On Thursday, State Department spokesman Ned Price confirmed that the request for a call had been submitted to the Russians before Blinken had made that public.
But Price’s Russian counterpart, Maria Zakharova, told Russian media outlets on Thursday that Lavrov “will devote attention to this request when time allows.”
“Right now, his international contact schedule is packed with real business,” she said, pointing to Lavrov’s participation at a meeting in Uzbekistan of foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation, as well as bilateral meetings on the sidelines.
Price said on Thursday that the U.S. has “made clear to the Russian Federation that we are seeking a conversation.”
“The Russians acknowledged that call request yesterday. We have continued to go back and forth,” he said. “We continue to expect that they’ll have an opportunity to speak in the coming days.”
Price said he “couldn’t say” whether the call would take place before next week.
Blinken said his primary objective in speaking to Lavrov is to advance an effort to secure the release of two Americans detained in Russia, Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner.
The U.S. has over the course of several weeks “directly and repeatedly” raised with the Russians a “substantial proposal” designed to bring them home, Price said.
“We are now escalating this to the level of the secretary in the hopes of moving this to resolution, but again, this substantial proposal has been on the table for weeks now.”
“There is no reason to delay this,” he said. “Every single day that Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner remain behind bars, it is injustice compounded on itself. Our goal is to see these cases resolved just as soon as we can.”
The State Department has not commented on reports that the proposal involves a prisoner swap – and specifically, that the U.S. is offering to exchange Whelan and Griner for the convicted Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout.
In addition to the issue of the detained Americans, Blinken said he wants to speak with Lavrov about the recently-signed agreement designed to unblock grain shipments in the Black Sea in a bid to ease the global food crisis blamed on the war, as well as alleged Russia’s plans to annex more territory in parts of Ukraine occupied by its troops.
The veteran Russian foreign minister has indicated in recent days that Moscow’s invasion objectives include wanting to help Ukrainians oust the government in Kyiv, and that its geographical goals go beyond the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.
Price stressed that the envisaged conversation with Lavrov would “not be a negotiation about Ukraine,” and that any such negotiations would be done by the Ukrainians themselves.
Blinken and Lavrov last met in January, in Geneva, amid heightened tensions over a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine’s borders. The Biden administration was warning that Russia could invade at any time; Moscow denied have any intention to do so.
Russia had earlier handed the U.S. and NATO a series of demands for “security guarantees” in Europe, including a pledge on no further NATO expansion. After the Geneva meeting, the U.S. and NATO provided written responses, but they did not satisfy the Kremlin’s demands.
Blinken and Lavrov were scheduled to meet again the following month, but after President Vladimir Putin recognized two separatist entities in eastern Ukraine as “independent” and said he would deploy “peacekeeping” troops there, Blinken canceled the meeting.
Two days later, Putin announced the beginning of the invasion.
Blinken and Lavrov have not spoken since, according to Blinken. They did both attend a G20 ministerial in Bali earlier this month, but had no direct contact.
‘Mutual exchange of Russian and American citizens’
Meanwhile Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Zakharova hinted on Thursday that the U.S. attempt to win freedom for Whelan and Griner could involve a swap.
Zakharova said in response to a question about Blinken’s remarks that the U.S. and Russian presidents had previous discussed “the question of the mutual exchange of Russian and American citizens in places of detention on the territory of the two countries.”
“They gave instructions to the relevant authorized departments to carry out negotiations,” she said. “A concrete result has not yet been achieved.”
“We proceed from the fact that the interests of both parties should be taken into account during the negotiations.”
Zakharova did not elaborate on talks between the two presidents, but after President Biden met with Putin in Geneva in June 2021, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Biden had pressed Putin to release “unjustly detained Americans.”
(At the time, Whelan and another U.S. citizen, Trevor Reed, were incarcerated in Russia. Griner’s arrest in Moscow would only occur eight months later. Reed was freed last April in exchange for another Russian prisoner, convicted drug smuggler. Konstantin Yaroshenko.)
Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, was arrested in Moscow in 2018 and sentenced in 2020 to 16 years’ imprisonment on spying charges which he denies. Griner, a professional basketball player, was detained in February and is on trial for alleged drug possession.
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