During a news conference on Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced he held a call with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on a potential bilateral prisoner exchange. A State Department official said the call lasted approximately 25 minutes. Washington and Moscow’s top diplomats discussed the Ukrainian grain export deal brokered by the UN and Turkey with Kiev and Moscow. Reportedly, also part of their dialogue was the role U.S. sanctions play in preventing the movement of Russian food supplies and fertilizer. This is the first time Blinken has spoken to Lavrov since February 15th, more than a week before Russia invaded Ukraine.
Five months into this war, amid the economic turmoil the American led sanctions blitz has caused, there is no indication that Blinken attempted to push for a ceasefire or negotiations to end the conflict.
The call appears to have primarily focused on a tentative deal for the release of two Americans that Russia has detained. Blinken described the call to reporters at the State Department as "a frank and direct conversation." Adding he "pressed the Kremlin to accept the substantial proposal that we put forth on the release of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner." Whelan is a former US Marine who was charged and convicted on espionage charges, he is currently serving a 16-year sentence. Griner is a WNBA player who was arrested and is on trial for cannabis oil possession. She could face as much as a ten year sentence.
A source told Reuters that for the two Americans’ release, Washington is willing to exchange the Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout. Bout is serving a 25-year prison sentence. The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement which says Lavrov told Blinken, in the future, Moscow would prefer to conduct such prisoner swap diplomacy in a more professional and quiet manner. Speaking at a news conference in Uzbekistan, Lavrov said talks on prisoner exchanges have been ongoing since last year’s summit in Geneva where Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin agreed to nominate officials to pursue the issue.
The US played no role in talks that led to the recent deal opening safe corridors to facilitate the export of grain and fertilizer from Ukraine’s heavily mined Black Sea ports. However, Blinken emphasized that "the world expects Russia to fulfill its commitments."
For his part, Lavrov told Blinken US sanctions have been a major factor in the global food crisis, adding Washington has not followed through on its promises regarding exemptions on Russian food exports. "Because, if it’s about Russian grain, US sanctions, in particular, have not permitted the contracts to be implemented in their full scope" Lavrov said.
Though US and EU sanctions contain exemptions for fertilizer, the Washington-led economic war still scares away banks, shipping companies, and insurance firms from working with Russia at all. This is a common occurrence when countries are targeted with heavy American sanctions campaigns. Sanctions on Iran technically have exemptions for medical goods but as UN experts have shown "banks and businesses, including pharmaceutical and medical companies around the world, over-comply with sanctions out of fear of potential penalties."
In June, it was reported that the US had begun quietly encouraging companies to buy and transport Russia’s fertilizer to lower global food prices. This month, after African leaders complained the West’s sanctions caused the continent’s lack of access to much needed Russian grain and fertilizer, the EU made plans to ease sanctions on some Russian banks to help allow such trade.
To the extent that the war was discussed, Blinken threatened Russia against moving forward with alleged plans of further annexations of territory in southern and eastern Ukraine. Blinken said "the world will not recognize annexations. We will impose additional significant costs on Russia if it moves forward with its plans." Lavrov said Moscow would meet the goals of its "special military operation."
According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, Lavrov also made clear to Blinken that Washington’s policy of fueling the war will only hurt Ukrainians, "the continuous pumping of US and NATO weapons into the armed forces of Ukraine…only prolongs the agony of the regime in Kyiv prolonging the conflict and multiplying the casualties.”
Top US and NATO leaders have said this war could go on for years. The US has already authorized $54 billion in aid for Kiev, a figure which represents mostly military spending. The US has poured billions of dollars of weapons into a "big black hole" in Ukraine to keep the war going. Biden recently declared at the NATO summit in Madrid that Americans and NATO will support Ukraine "as long as it takes" to defeat the Russians. In April, Pentagon Chief Lloyd Austin said the goal is to see the Russians "weakened." In March, Blinken said he expects to see "a strategic defeat" of Russia in Ukraine. "We’ll accomplish this by backing Ukrainians in their fight… devastating sanctions, the diplomatic isolation and other measures," he added. Lavrov has compared this situation to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Tensions continue to rise in the war as Washington has the CIA openly deployed on the ground, "mostly" in Kiev, passing "massive amounts of intelligence" along to Kiev’s forces on the front lines. NATO special forces from at least Britain, Lithuania, Canada, and France are in Ukraine "training and advising" Russia’s enemies and providing "an on-the-ground conduit for weapons." This past weekend, after a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a pair of House lawmakers visiting Kiev told Fox News they support American military advisors being deployed in Ukraine.
Reportedly, there are retired American special operators training Ukrainian troops close to where the action is, planning missions against Russian soldiers.
Antiwar.com recently asked the State Department whether Kiev’s "assurances" regarding a supposed prohibition on US provided High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems being used against Russian territory applied to the Crimean peninsula. A State Department spokesperson replied "Crimea is Ukraine." Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, currently serving as the deputy chair of Russia’s security council, has warned if Kiev attacks Crimea, it will mean "doomsday" for the Ukrainian leadership. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Volodymyr Havrylov said Russia must "leave Crimea if they wish to exist as a country." Top Ukrainian military officials are also discussing using western supplied anti-ship missiles to soon target Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
In the midst of all of this chaos and brinkmanship, Biden has still not spoken with Putin. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban recently called for negotiations between Washington and Moscow. "A new strategy is needed, which should focus on peace negotiations instead of trying to win the war" he implored, adding the Russians want security guarantees only America can provide. The USrefused to discuss taking Kiev’s invitation to join NATO, Russia’s "brightest" redline, off the table. Zelensky has admitted that when he asked NATO about joining the alliance their response was "very clear, you’re not going to be a NATO member, but publicly, the doors will remain open."
On April 5th, the Washington Post reported that for "some in NATO, it’s better for the Ukrainians to keep fighting, and dying, than to achieve a peace that comes too early."
Connor Freeman is the assistant editor and a writer at the Libertarian Institute, primarily covering foreign policy. He is a co-host on Conflicts of Interest. His writing has been featured in media outlets such as Antiwar.com and Counterpunch, as well as the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity. He has also appeared on Liberty Weekly, Around the Empire, and Parallax Views. You can follow him on Twitter @FreemansMind96.