By Jennifer Hansler, CNN
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday for the first time since Moscow launched its war in Ukraine in late February.
In what the top US diplomat described as “a frank and direct conversation,” Blinken said he “pressed the Kremlin to accept the substantial proposal that we put forth on the release of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner.”
That proposal, which has been on the table since June, includes an offer to swap convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, CNN reported earlier this week.
Speaking at a press conference at the State Department, Blinken declined to say whether he thought Russians were more or less likely move on the proposal following the conversation, nor would he describe how Lavrov responded.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement Friday that Lavrov “strongly suggested” to Blinken that the United States should return to a mode of “quiet diplomacy” regarding a possible prisoner exchange “without speculative information stuffing.”
Blinken, who announced on Wednesday his intention to speak to Lavrov this week, emphasized that he thought it was important that his counterpart hear directly from him.
The top US diplomat said he also discussed the expectation that the deal to allow Ukrainian grain to transit safely through the Black Sea be implemented, noting that they’re “looking to see that move forward as soon as possible.” The Russian Foreign Ministry said the two discussed this matter “in detail,” with Lavrov blaming US sanctions for complicating the issue “and US promises to provide appropriate exemptions for Russian food supplies have not yet been fulfilled.”
Blinken said he also warned Lavrov against Russia attempting to annex more of Ukraine, stressing that the “world will not recognize annexations” and “will impose additional significant costs on Russia if it moves forward with its plans.”
In its statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Lavrov told Blinken that Moscow’s “goals and objectives” in the war in Ukraine “will be fully implemented.”
According to a senior State Department official, the call took place shortly after noon Washington time and lasted roughly 25 minutes.
Earlier on Friday, Lavrov downplayed the prospects of the call taking place that day, and also suggested that the matter of the detained Americans should be discussed through other channels.
“Obviously it is unlikely to happen today, but in the coming days we will offer our American colleagues a suitable date,” the Russian Foreign Minister said during a visit to Uzbekistan.
“If we are talking about an exchange of prisoners, about an exchange of people who are detained in Russia and the United States, we have already commented on behalf of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that this topic was considered more than a year ago at the Geneva meeting in June 2021 between Presidents Putin and Biden,” Lavrov noted, according to Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.
“There, they agreed to authorize the competent people to deal with these issues. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is not one of them. But still, I will listen to what he has to say,” he said.
Prior to the call between Blinken and Lavrov, US officials had expressed frustration at Moscow’s lack of substantive response to the proposal to free Whelan and Griner. State Department spokesperon Ned Price on Thursday acknowledged “this has not moved to the extent we would like.”
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CNN’s Evgenii Shapovalov, Uliana Pavlova and Jorge Engels contributed reporting.