US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference at the State Department in Washington, DC, on July 27, 2022. - Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that the United States has put forward a "substantial" offer to Russia on prisoners as he prepared to speak to his counterpart by telephone. (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY / AFP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spoken to his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov for the first time since the start of the war in Ukraine. There was an “open and direct discussion” on Friday morning about an offer to release US basketball player Brittney Griner, who was imprisoned in Russia, and American citizen Paul Whelan, Blinken said in Washington.

“I urged the Kremlin to accept the substantive proposal that we (…) made.” The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed the phone call between the two chief diplomats.

The US government announced on Wednesday that it had made an offer to Russia to release the two US citizens. However, she did not provide any details about the proposal. Blinken had also said that he wanted to speak to Lavrov in this connection and that he had tabled an offer weeks ago to secure the release of Griner and Whelan.

The decision on the offer was not easy, said the communications director of the National Security Council, John Kirby. Media had previously reported that a prisoner swap with US-imprisoned Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout was part of the offer.

For years Moscow has been demanding the extradition of the former Soviet officer who is said to have illegally equipped regimes and rebels in numerous countries with weapons. Bout was notorious as the “Dealer of Death”.

Lavrov had declared his willingness to talk to his US counterpart Blinken about a prisoner swap and the resumption of Ukrainian grain exports. Blinken also stressed that Lavrov had made it clear that the US would not accept Russian plans to annex more territory from Ukraine.

“The world will not recognize annexations. We will impose further significant costs on Russia if it proceeds with its plans,” Blinken said. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, Lavrov complained during the conversation that the heavy weapons supplied by the West to Ukraine were killing children in the war zone.

US basketball player Brittney Griner 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.

Griner has admitted her guilt, but defended herself in court on Wednesday, saying she used medical marijuana as a pain reliever in consultation with her doctor and had no intention of “violating any law of the Russian Federation.”

The US government criticizes that Griner is being held unjustly. Moscow rejects the accusation that the trial against Griner was politically motivated. The relationship between the two countries was already in tatters before the start of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, and since then it has drastically deteriorated again.

Paul Whelan, who has multiple citizenships, was arrested in Russia in December 2018 and accused of espionage. He is said to have received secret information on a data carrier in Russia. In June 2020, he was sentenced to 16 years in prison with the possibility of a stay in a labor camp. Whelan criticized the process as a political staging.