A day after it emerged that the American basketball star Brittney Griner had been sent to a Russian penal colony, a top Russian diplomat said on Friday that the prospect of a prisoner exchange was increasing, and acknowledged that it could involve a Russian arms dealer imprisoned in the United States.
But U.S. officials dismissed the suggestion of any new optimism about an agreement, saying that the Kremlin had not been serious about negotiating a deal.
Since June, the Biden administration has proposed trading Viktor Bout, the arms dealer, for Ms. Griner, who has been jailed for nine months, and Paul N. Whelan, an American held for almost four years and convicted of espionage, according to U.S. officials and numerous news media reports.
Their fates have been caught up in the hardening confrontation between Washington and Moscow over the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which American officials say is reflected in the tough treatment of Ms. Griner. She has been jailed for nine months and was sentenced to nine years for entering Russia with vape cartridges containing hashish oil, and her lawyers confirmed on Thursday that she had been transferred to a penal colony, where harsh conditions and mistreatment are commonplace.
U.S. officials have not publicly acknowledged that Mr. Bout has been offered in a prisoner swap, but on Friday, the Kremlin did. “So far, we have not come to a common denominator, but it is undeniable that Viktor Bout is among those who are being discussed, and we certainly count on a positive result,” Sergei A. Ryabkov, the deputy foreign minister, told reporters in Moscow, according to the Interfax news agency,
The chance of an exchange “is being strengthened,” he said, adding that “we are working professionally through a special channel designed for this.” But he did not explicitly say for whom Mr. Bout would be traded, according to Interfax.
The U.S. State Department quickly threw cold water on his comments.
“We have made a substantial offer that the Russian Federation has consistently failed to negotiate in good faith,” a department spokesman, Vedant Patel, said at a news briefing. The U.S. government “has continued to follow up on that proposal and propose alternative potential ways forward.”
But, he said, the Kremlin’s “failure to seriously negotiate on these issues in the established channel, or any other channel for that matter, runs counter to its public statements.”
Mr. Bout is currently serving a 25-year sentence in a U.S. prison for conspiring to sell weapons to people who said they planned to kill Americans. Since his arrest in 2008, Russia has repeatedly made efforts to secure his release.
In addition to Ms. Griner’s case, the Biden administration has been working to secure the release of Paul Whelan, a former Marine who in 2020 was sentenced to 16 years in a high-security Russian prison on espionage charges.
The release of Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine, as part of a prisoner exchange with Russia in April raised hopes that diplomatic efforts could still yield results despite the current level of hostility between Washington and Moscow.