Repatriating Americans held in foreign prisons is always a win for any administration. Particularly important during the Christmas season is taking the opportunity to reunite families where one of their numbers has been separated and endured the hardship of a Russian jail. On December 8, the Biden administration announced it had secured the return of Brittney Griner, an American women’s basketball player held in a Russian prison convicted of drug smuggling. The release of Griner came about from a one-for-one prisoner swap on the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi Airport tarmac with the Russian international criminal Viktor Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death.” Bout was serving a 25-year sentence for selling weapons to kill Americans and was found guilty of conspiring to support and give aid to terrorists.
Even this bit of good news for the Biden foreign policy team was not without its downside. While the high political profile women’s basketball player was released, the former US Marine Paul Whelan, accused of espionage, convicted in the standard Moscow sham trial, remains in a Mordovia Russian prison camp. For many Americans, the message was clear. “We’ll leave the Marine in the jail in Russia, we’ll free the guy who was going to target US soldiers, and just get the high-profile basketball player,” is how Congressman Mark Green (R-TN), member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, put it in an interview with Fox News.
A Good Question on the Griner Swap
The congressman raises a good question. The convention used in the past when negotiating for prisoner exchanges has been first in, first out. That did not happen with this negotiation. Instead, Whelan was apprehended in Moscow in 2018 and has been in a Russian prison for four years. Griner had been a prisoner for 294 days – less than a year. “While announcing the news of Griner’s release, Biden insisted the swap ‘was not a choice of which American to bring home’ and reiterated his dedication to bringing Whelan back to American soil,” Isabel Keane reported in the New York Post. What does the president mean by it “was not a choice?” Of course, it was. To say it wasn’t is just silly. The administration chose the option that checked the politically advantageous square with the most media mileage.
By all accounts, the “Merchant of Death” was a highly sought-after Russian agent, and Russian President Putin wanted him back. Consequently, one would think there was leverage the US negotiators had. Instead, on the world’s geopolitical stage, Putin will be seen as putting one over on the US again. Keeping Griner imprisoned was undesirable from a public relations perspective. Trading her was not a significant concession and, in some ways, a plus, as the Kremlin’s strongman does not have a particularly stellar international image. Keeping Whelan, on the other hand, with the charge of espionage, is a far more important chip for Moscow. “[T]his swap gives Putin some useful propaganda to present himself as having gotten the better of the United States. The Russian government took great pleasure in the Biden administration’s far too visible display of desperation to reach an agreement over Griner,” the Washington Examiner’s Tom Rogan explained.
Russian Perspective a Little Different
“The Russian Federation spent a long time negotiating the release of Viktor Bout with the United States. Washington categorically rejected any dialogue on including the Russian in the exchange. Nevertheless, the Russian Federation continued working hard to rescue our compatriot,” the Russian Foreign Ministry crowed on its Facebook page. Whether the subtleties implicit in Moscow’s message are accurate, the lasting impression of US negotiating skill is the US is always willing to get ten cents on the dollar. As Bill Hemmer of Fox News observed regarding the Bout-Griner swap, “But if it’s a bad deal, why do a deal at all?” Remember when President Biden was the vice president under President Obama? That administration did a swap too. Four hardened, high-ranking Taliban jihadist terrorists, each of whom immediately returned to terrorism activities, were traded for one US Army deserter.
Americans should be happy and celebrate that one of our own is safe on US soil. Unfortunately, the irony is that “Brittney Griner said in 2020 that the National Anthem should not be played before WNBA games and vowed to protest if it was played,” the Daily Wire wrote. As some in the media offered, perhaps the National Anthem will sound a little sweeter now.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
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