ODESA, Ukraine — The top Russian and American diplomats spoke on Friday for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, to discuss a possible prisoner swap involving the American basketball star Brittney Griner. Although no breakthrough was reported, it marked a resumption of direct communication between Washington and Moscow.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said at a news conference that he had urged Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov in a phone call to accept a deal for the release of Ms. Griner and another American, Paul N. Whelan, both of whom the State Department labels as “wrongfully detained.”
“I urged Foreign Minister Lavrov to move forward with that proposal,” he said. “I’m not going to characterize his response, and I can’t give you an assessment of whether I think things are any more or less likely.”
The Biden administration, which has come under enormous public pressure to free Ms. Griner, has offered to hand over Viktor Bout, an imprisoned Russian arms dealer, in exchange for the two Americans, according to a person briefed on the discussions. Ms. Griner was detained a week before the war began for entering Russia with vape cartridges containing cannabis oil, while Mr. Whelan was arrested in 2018 and convicted of espionage; he says he was framed.
In its statement on the call, Russia’s foreign ministry said that what was needed on a possible prisoner exchange was “quiet diplomacy,” not the release of “speculative information.” The West’s arming of Ukraine, it said, “only prolongs the agony of the regime in Kyiv, prolonging the conflict and multiplying the victims.”
Mr. Blinken said he also pressed Mr. Lavrov to make good on an agreement reached last week by Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the United Nations to loosen a Russian naval blockade and allow grain shipments to leave Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. It is the most important agreement yet reached between the warring countries since Russia invaded five months ago.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said on Friday that his country was now prepared to begin shipping grain and that freighters could start moving within a few days, heralding what would be a major step toward alleviating growing global hunger.
“Our side is fully ready,” Mr. Zelensky said on a visit to Chernomorsk, a port near Odesa. “We’ve given our partners, the U.N. and Turkey the signal and our military will guarantee security.”
Even if grain ships do get underway, danger, uncertainty and deep mistrust will hang over the effort, and major obstacles to carrying out the agreement remain.
What to Know About Brittney Griner’s Detention in Russia
The crucial wild card in Ms. Griner’s case, as with the food exports, is the unpredictability of Russia, which, on many matters, has given contradictory accounts of events and of its stances.
The Russian authorities say that the case of Ms. Griner, who pleaded guilty, is simply apolitical enforcement of their drug laws, though similar cases have been resolved quickly with a fine and expulsion. American officials say she is being used by the Kremlin as a pawn in the Ukraine war.
Several times during the war, the Russians have agreed to allow humanitarian corridors to evacuate besieged cities, only to fire on those corridors and at times detain some of those fleeing. Just a day after signing the grain deal, Russia fired missiles at the port of Odesa — though not the part of the port where grain is handled — and Mr. Lavrov later said it reserved the right to continue such attacks.
The Kremlin insists that its forces strike only military targets, but every day offers fresh evidence to the contrary, as homes, hospitals, schools, farms and shops are destroyed and civilians are killed. On Friday, a rocket exploded at a crowded bus stop in the embattled southern city of Mykolaiv, killing at least five people and wounding more than a dozen others, officials said.
“I hope that the people who are pressing these buttons see what kind of grief they are causing,” said Mykolaiv’s mayor, Oleksandr Senkevych, who added that Russians had hit a crowded intersection with cluster munitions. “They will understand that Ukrainians do not hate them simply because they exist but for what they do.”
An explosion killed dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war at a camp in the town of Olenivka, in the Russian-controlled territory of Donetsk Province in eastern Ukraine, officials said on Friday, and each side blamed the other. What happened was unclear, but it became another example of the two nations fighting hard on the propaganda front as well as the battlefield, trying to shape how the war is perceived.
Russia routinely denies well-documented atrocities, its own losses and even its role as the aggressor. It outlawed any negative description of its “special military operation,” including calling it a war. Within Russia, the Kremlin has near-total control of information, with independent news outlets having shut down rather than face prosecution.
Novaya Gazeta, one of the most prominent and last remaining of those outlets, reported Thursday that the Russian authorities have gone to court to strip its license. Novaya Gazeta — whose editor, Dmitri A. Muratov, shared the Nobel Peace Prize last year for defending free expression — suspended operations in March rather than face prosecution, but unlike many others, it did not dissolve.
Western officials have repeatedly accused Russia of using food as leverage in the war, a claim the Kremlin denies. In addition to blockading ports, the main conduit for Ukrainian food exports, Russian forces have struck farms and food storage facilities, and seized grain. Russia’s own food exports have fallen sharply, too, which it blames on Western sanctions dissuading companies from carrying or insuring Russian shipments.
The Plight of Brittney Griner in Russia
The American basketball star has endured months in a Russian prison on charges of smuggling hashish oil into the country.
The resulting shortages helped drive food prices up sharply. This spring the price of wheat futures were more than double what they were a year earlier, though they have since declined somewhat.
Ukraine is one of the world’s top exporters of wheat, corn, barley and sunflower oil, and is a particularly important supplier to the Horn of Africa, which is experiencing a multiyear drought. More than 20 million tons of grain are stuck in Ukrainian ports because of the war, which the United Nations has warned greatly increases the risk of famine.
Ukraine has mined the waters around its ports to prevent a Russian assault. Russian officials said that Ukraine should simply remove mines and let the grain ships sail, subject to Russian inspection, vowing not to take advantage of the lowered defenses — a pledge Ukraine was unwilling to accept.
Under the deal, Ukrainian pilots who know the safe routes will guide ships in and out of port. On the way to or from Ukraine, ships will stop in Turkey for inspection by an international team that includes Russians, primarily to assure Moscow they are not carrying weapons to Ukraine. In addition, the United Nations will help Russia overcome obstacles to its food exports.
A joint coordination center that opened in Turkey on Wednesday is working to establish standard operating procedures, including monitoring, inspection and emergency response, said Ismini Palla, a U.N. official, adding that the teams were also still working out safe routes for inbound and outbound ships.
“Once all of those elements are in place, then we will start seeing the first movements,” Ms. Palla said. “The ultimate goal is to ensure the safe passage of commercial vessels.”
Ambassadors from the Group of 7 nations, including the United States, Britain and Germany, went on Friday to the port of Odesa, near idled cargo ships and grain silos, to stress the importance of the deal and to urge Russia to abide by it.
“Millions of people around the world are waiting for grain to come out of this and other Ukrainian ports,” said Bridget Brink, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, speaking at the port. “It’s very important for Russia to live up to its commitments and to allow this grain to be exported.”
Michael Schwirtz reported from Odesa, Michael Crowley from Washington and Richard Pérez-Peña from Los Angeles. Matina Stevis-Gridneff contributed reporting from Brussels.
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