US, Russia top diplomats hold ‘frank’ first talks since Ukraine war started

WASHINGTON: The top diplomats of the United States and Russia spoke on Friday (Jul 29) for the first time since the Ukraine war, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken describing a “frank” exchange as he pushed to free two Americans.

Blinken initiated the call with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whom he had shunned as early as a few weeks ago, as he pressed Russia to accept an offer to free prisoners.

“We had a frank and direct conversation. I pressed the Kremlin to accept the substantial proposal that we put forth on the release of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner,” Blinken told reporters.

President Joe Biden has faced growing public pressure to find a way home for Griner, a basketball star jailed for transport of cannabis oil, and Whelan, a former Marine jailed on espionage charges he denies.

Blinken declined to characterise Lavrov’s reaction, saying: “I can’t give you an assessment of whether I think things are any more or less likely.”

“But it was important that he heard directly from me on that,” Blinken said.

Russia’s foreign ministry, in a statement on the call, said that relations between the two nations “are in strong need of normalisation”.

“As for a potential swap of Russian and American prisoners, the Russian side insisted that we return to a regime of professional dialogue, free of media speculation, in the framework of discreet diplomacy,” it said.

Lavrov also denounced the US military and NATO for their supply of billions of dollars of weapons to Ukraine, saying it “only prolonged the agony of the Kyiv regime, extending the conflict and its victims”, the foreign ministry said.