WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner sits in a cage at a court room prior to a hearing, in Khimki, outside Moscow, Russia, July 27, 2022. American basketball star Brittney Griner returns to a Russian courtroom for her drawn-out trial on drug charges that could bring her 10 years in prison of convicted. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via REUTERS

For the first time since Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine began, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken wants to speak to his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov. Blinken said at a press conference in Washington on Wednesday that the phone call “in the coming days” should be about the release of US basketball player Brittney Griner and her compatriot Paul Whelan, who were imprisoned in Moscow.

The US Secretary of State also wants to address compliance with the new agreement on grain exports from Ukraine.

Blinken said the US government “put a substantial proposal on the table” for Moscow “weeks ago” to secure the release of Griner and Whelan. He did not give details of the offer. There is speculation that the two could be traded for Russian arms dealer Viktor But, who is in prison in the United States.

The National Security Council’s communications director, John Kirby, said on Wednesday they hoped Russia would accept the deal. The decision to accept such an offer was not easy. The US government made the proposal public “so the world knows how serious the United States is about bringing our citizens home.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry announced in the evening that there was no official request for such a talk. Instead of using the megaphone for diplomacy, Washington should stick to diplomatic practice, Moscow said.

US basketball player Brittney Griner, who is in prison in Russia, was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport on February 17 for a drug-related offense. When her luggage was checked in February, she is said to have had so-called vape cartridges and a small amount of hash oil with her. A court near Moscow is hearing the case.

Washington criticizes that Griner is wrongly detained. She herself admitted to having had drugs in her luggage. However, on medical advice, she only used medical marijuana as a painkiller.

Paul Whelan, who has multiple citizenships, was arrested in Russia in December 2018 and accused of espionage. In June 2020, he was sentenced to 16 years in prison with the possibility of a stay in a labor camp.

Relations between Moscow and Washington have long been shattered. At a summit in Geneva in mid-June last year, US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed a possible exchange of prisoners, according to the Kremlin. In April, following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, the US and Russia exchanged Russian citizen Konstantin Yaroshenko for US citizen Trevor Reed.

Blinken announced that they would also talk to Lavrov about compliance with the new agreement on the protected export of grain from Ukraine. “The agreement is a positive step forward, but there is a difference between an agreement on paper and an agreement in practice,” said Blinken.

On Friday, wartime opponents Ukraine and Russia signed an agreement with the UN and Turkey to allow grain exports from three Ukrainian ports across the Black Sea. According to Ukrainian sources, more than 20 million tons of grain from last year’s harvest are still waiting to be exported.

Port operations were suspended for security reasons after the Russian invasion at the end of February. Ukraine also mined its coast to protect against Russian landings. The ports have since resumed work.

In the war against Ukraine, the number of casualties on the Russian side has long been in the tens of thousands, according to US estimates. “We were informed that more than 75,000 Russians were either killed or injured, which is enormous,” CNN quoted Elissa Slotkin, a Democratic House Representative who previously attended a secret US government briefing, as saying.

Ukraine is making progress in its counter-offensive, Western security circles said on Wednesday. During the night from Tuesday to Wednesday, the Ukrainians again hit a bridge over the Dnipro River, which is an important supply route for Moscow. “The river crossing is now completely impassable,” it said.

On the Russian side there are serious problems with supplies and the morale of the armed forces. “In our view, an operational pause is inevitable,” said a senior Western official.

Looking at the bridge over the Dnipro River in southern Kherson Oblast, which was bombed by Ukrainian forces, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his evening video address on Wednesday that everything would be rebuilt after the recapture. “We will liberate our entire country with military, diplomatic and every other available tool.”

In view of the energy crisis in Europe, Zelenskyy offered the EU support with electricity from his country. “We are preparing to increase our electricity exports to consumers in the European Union,” he said.

“Our export not only allows us to earn foreign exchange, but also our partners to withstand the Russian energy pressure,” he said, referring to the significantly reduced gas supplies from Russia. “Step by step, we are making Ukraine one of the guarantors of European energy security, precisely through our domestic electricity production.”

Russia’s energy giant Gazprom had again reduced gas supplies through the Nord Stream 1 Baltic Sea pipeline due to alleged technical problems on Wednesday – this time to 20 percent of the maximum volume. Since imported gas is also used to a small extent to generate electricity, a debate has broken out about a possible extension of the service life for nuclear power plants in Germany.

Proponents hope that this will result in more gas and heat for private households, industry and public institutions in winter.

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock embarks on a three-day trip to Greece and Turkey on Thursday. The visit of the Greens politician to the two NATO partners will be all about the Ukraine war and its consequences. Turkey maintains good relations with both Russia and Ukraine and tries to mediate between the conflicting parties.