Washington has proposed an agreement to Moscow for the release of two American prisoners and hopes to follow up with Russia’s FM Lavrov, said US top diplomat Blinken.

Brittney Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan
Brittney Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan "have been wrongfully detained and must be allowed to come home," US top diplomat Blinken said. (AP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said he will speak to his Russian counterpart for the first time since the Ukraine crisis to take up a "substantial proposal" to free detained Americans.

Blinken said he expected a telephone call "in the coming days" with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to push forward an offer to release basketball star Brittney Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan.

The pair "have been wrongfully detained and must be allowed to come home," Blinken told reporters.

"We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release. Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal and I'll use the conversation to follow up personally," he said.

Citing the sensitivity, Blinken declined to go into detail or confirm reports that the United States was offering to trade them for Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms smuggler.

The United States and Russia already engaged in one prisoner swap in the heat of the Ukraine conflict: In April Washington exchanged former US Marine Trevor Reed for convicted drug smuggler Konstantin Yaroshenko.

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No formal approach

Russian TASS news agency reported that there was no official approach from Washington to Moscow for a phone call demand between Lavrov and Blinken.

President Joe Biden's administration has faced growing pressure to free Griner, a basketball star who has pleaded guilty to carrying cannabis oil in Russia. She testified earlier Wednesday at her trial that she did so unintentionally.

Whelan, a security official at an auto parts company, was arrested in Moscow in December 2018 and in 2020 sentenced to 16 years in prison for espionage, which he denies.

Whelan's family in a statement voiced appreciation for the Biden administration's efforts and hoped that Russia "accepts this or some other concession" for his freedom.

If it happens, the telephone conversation will be the first between Blinken and Lavrov since February 15 when the top US diplomat warned Russia against attacking Ukraine.

Russia went ahead and attacked its neighbor nine days later, leading the United States and its allies to impose sweeping sanctions and to seek to isolate Moscow on the world stage.

The conversation "will not be a negotiation about Ukraine," Blinken told reporters.

"Any negotiation regarding Ukraine is for its people to determine," he said.

Blinken pointedly declined to meet Lavrov when they both attended a ministerial meeting of the Group of 20 economies in Bali earlier this month, with the United States rallying its allies in criticising Russia in the closed-door sessions.

Source: AFP