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The U.S. and Russia have not reached an agreement involving Brittney Griner’s release from prison. A prisoner swap that was once on the table is now uncertain.
Griner was playing for a local Russian basketball team during the WNBA off-season. She was traveling through Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport when security stopped her to search her carry-on bag. She was taken into custody after they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil. The WNBA star is currently fighting drug smuggling charges since marijuana is illegal in the country. Although she was detained back in February, news of Griner’s imprisonment came out after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The war began a week after the incident, adding to the already hostile relationship between the world’s biggest superpowers.
Dashed Hopes to Freedom
The Biden administration is under immense pressure to secure Griner’s freedom. Negotiations between the U.S. and Russia have gone on and off again since June. An American proposal for an exchange involving Griner and another Russian prisoner for one arms dealer had been offered. While the Russians have yet to formally respond to it, some believe the Kremlin will not approve of the exchange since it is unequal. They will be even less likely to give in to U.S demands since the U.S. has been critical of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. President Joe Biden has labeled Russian president Vladimir Putin as a “war criminal” and “murderous dictator.” The challenge for both parties is to achieve something without giving too much ground to the other nation.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken first brought the deal to light last Wednesday and told the press about the details of the exchange. Blinken called his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov after the Russians had not accepted the exchange.
I spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov today to press for the release of U.S. citizens Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, who are wrongfully detained. I also urged Russia to honor its commitments regarding the export of Ukrainian grain. pic.twitter.com/6zrRd1rNGT
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) July 29, 2022
Viktor Bout is the convicted arms dealer that the U.S wanted to trade for Griner and Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine convicted of espionage. Bout is currently serving a 25-year sentence for trying to sell weapons to a Colombian terrorist organization. He pleaded not guilty.
The Kremlin does not seem to be happy that news of the deal is getting a lot of attention from the press. Multiple individuals close to the matter all suggest that the U.S. made it harder for Griner to be released due to the affair being publicized. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov urged against “megaphone diplomacy” and the Russian foreign minister wanted to conduct the talks privately without the media knowing.
I strongly advised a return to professional dialogue in the context of ‘quiet diplomacy’ without any dubious media leaks.
Previous Exchange Attempts
The Russians are rumored to seek a more even exchange, with multiple prisoners to choose from. Vadim Krasikov is a possible choice; he was convicted of murder in 2021 and is being held in Germany. Since this will require convincing Berlin Officials to participate in a U.S.-Russia deal,
The White House is not taking the counteroffer seriously and some view it as a “stalling tactic” by the Russians. Bringing in a third party would only complicate things further as Berlin officials may be concerned that Russia is getting the better deal. A White House National Security Council spokeswoman railed against the offer, urging Russia to take the deal already on the table.
Holding two wrongfully detained Americans hostage for the release of a Russian assassin in a third country’s custody is not a serious counteroffer. It is a bad faith attempt to avoid the deal on the table that Russia should take.
Written by Chiagozie Onyewuchi
Edited by Sheena Robertson
Bloomberg: Russia Wants Two Prisoners in Swap for Americans Brittney Griner, Paul Whelan; by Bloomberg news
People: A Timeline of Brittney Griner’s Detainment in Russia; by Kate Hogan and People Staff
The Guardian: US’s proposed swap for Griner and Whelan met with skepticism and fury; by Maya Yang