By Emmett Chan
MOSCOW — WNBA Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner was recently caught in the middle of a tragic and complicated situation fraught with political tension and impossible decisions, as she was sentenced to 9 years in prison for attempting to bring two vape cartridges filled with hashish oil into Russia.
Considering these circumstances, it is important to recall certain details about Griner: she is American, female, black, lesbian, and a professional athlete. She not only has enough prominence as a public figure to draw substantial support for her release, but she also belongs to multiple marginalized groups—resulting in a campaign petitioning Biden to promptly secure Griner’s release, led by Griner’s wife Cherelle Griner and supported by over forty different groups and organizations.
“If it was LeBron, he’d be home, right?” said Vanessa Nygaard, head coach of the Phoenix Mercury. “It’s a statement about the value of women. It’s a statement about the value of a Black person. It’s a statement about the value of a gay person. All of those things. We know it, and so that’s what hurts a little more.”
The immense pressure for the U.S. government to recover Griner as soon as possible was intensified when Griner herself penned a letter to Biden. The emotional appeal gained immediate traction all over the internet. So long as Griner remains imprisoned—and especially if she is convicted, thereby moving from her current pretrial detention facility to a penal colony where she might be at greater risk of harm—Biden will continue to face criticism.
After the release of Griner’s letter, Cherelle called out the Biden administration:
“It almost feels like indirectly they’ve told us as a family they will not meet with us despite the fact that everybody is saying when I do speak to people: ‘BG’s a top priority. We know she’s wrongfully detained. We’re doing everything.’ But the people that have the highest power, they have not spoken to me and my family.”
It was only after Biden wrote back to Griner and spoke to Cherelle that she praised Biden for “exhausting all efforts” to secure Griner’s release. “He sees [Brittney Griner] as a person, and he has not forgotten her, which was her biggest cry in her letter,” said Cherelle.
Evidently, Biden’s political standing in this situation is dependent on demonstrating to Cherelle, Griner’s many supporters, and much of the American public that he intends to make Griner’s release a top priority.
As Russian-born American journalist Julia Ioffe observes, “The optics of Joe Biden allowing a Black and openly gay woman to languish in a Russian prison are not good.”
The Russian government seems to be leveraging Griner’s value in the American political landscape to extract as much from the U.S. government as possible.
Ioffe notes that the Russian government has historically favored exchanges such as prisoner swaps. “The Russian government loves these kinds of quid pro quo arrangements and, because the Kremlin knows how much the American government values its citizens, especially those like Griner who are high-profile and whom it believes have been ‘wrongfully detained’ by hostile governments, the exchanges tend to be a bit lopsided in Russia’s favor.”
She specifically cites the 2010 spy exchange between the U.S. and Russia as evidence. While the disproportionality of this and other instances of American–Russian prisoner exchanges can be argued, it is far from definitive.
Regardless, it is undeniable that the Russian government has had an extensive history of conducting prisoner exchanges, and would be incentivized in current times to demand high asking prices.
As recently as April 2022—after Griner’s detainment ended—former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed was exchanged for accused cocaine smuggler Konstantin Yaroshenko. There may be ambiguity as to whether the exchange was appropriate, but it possibly sets a dangerous precedent.
Since the Reed–Yaroshenko swap was successfully completed, it establishes that Russia–U.S. prisoner exchanges are still viable, even as the war in Ukraine continues, and that mounting pressure from its citizens on the U.S. government can force its hand.
Since the Russian government has assurance that such deals are possible, it has further leverage and license to demand more lopsided deals in the future, especially since it is likely aware of the pressure Biden faces to broker a deal for Griner. It has already done so, conveying that even the highly coveted and dangerous arms smuggler Viktor Bout is not enough to free Griner and corporate security director Paul Whelan.
Instead, the Kremlin wants convicted murderer and German prisoner Vadim Krasikov, whose assassination of a former Chechen rebel fighter in broad daylight was possibly under Kremlin orders, to be added to the deal. Another option is Roman Seleznev, a convicted Russian hacker.
National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby considers the Russian request a “bad faith attempt to avoid a very serious offer,” but he and a State Department official would not confirm if the Russian government’s lopsided offer signals that negotiations have stalled—at least until Griner’s trial is over.
So long as Krasikov or Seleznev must be added to the deal, it is both unlikely and unwise for the U.S. government to exchange for Griner. Even exchanging Bout alone is perilous because of Bout’s past actions and close ties to the Kremlin.
As an arms dealer whose weapons were used during conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, he is indirectly responsible for scores of deaths. There is danger of him resuming his activities, and an ethical issue of releasing him for American civilians.
Bout may have been working for Russian military interests and may possess knowledge of what happened to the Soviet Union’s weapons, but to U.S. officials and analysts, his connections to Russian military intelligence are more certain.
His return to Russia would be an incredible triumph that could fuel further Russian aggression, especially since Bout is particularly prized by the Kremlin: “We have a special word in the Russian language for people like Bout: ‘svoi.’ It means someone from ‘us.’ It’s someone who worked for the motherland, at least in [the government’s] eyes,” explains Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya.
Considering Bout’s crimes and connections, his release would also set a dangerous standard for future negotiations with Russia, going beyond the level of the Reed–Yaroshenko exchange. Bout is far more valuable to the Russian government and its war effort than Yaroshenko, and Griner holds far more value than Reed as a political prisoner, especially since Reed could not be used as a bargaining chip if he were allowed to perish.
Furthermore, the precedent would give other dangerous Russian prisoners easier paths to freedom, and could potentially motivate a higher rate of imprisonment for American citizens.
More reasonable negotiations for Griner may be possible when her trial concludes, but that is an optimistic outlook. For the foreseeable future, the Kremlin is in a position to make their unreasonable demand for Bout even more outrageous.
Ioffe conveys the impossibility of the situation: “For Putin, the calculus looks pretty obvious: The longer he holds on to Griner, the longer she languishes in a violent prison camp, the more Washington will have to cave to his demands — and the more power he has over his archenemy, the United States.”
It is worth noting that recovering the American prisoners, particularly Griner, would also represent an immense triumph for the United States.
Griner and her loved ones would be able to resume their lives and start the process of physical and mental recovery from this ordeal. Biden would likely receive praise for securing the return of an American prisoner as prominent as Griner.
But this triumph would be marred by its cost—neither Griner nor Whelan pose a threat to Russia, but Bout is far more dangerous than either.
Griner’s plight is lamentable; whatever decision made will result in a lose-lose situation. Considering Russia’s laws and how turbulent the geopolitical situation was—even in February—she could have exercised more caution, but there should be nothing but sympathy for the suffering she and her loved ones are currently experiencing.
Still, unless a more reasonable means of recovering her becomes available, the decisions necessary to secure Griner’s release have too many dangerous consequences.