From the beginning, Brittney Griner’s status has been the most unique American hostage situation in modern history. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, her celebrity status, and her identity as a Black lesbian woman have heightened the urge to get her home as quickly as possible in a wartime climate that’s raised the degree of difficulty.
No American has enough good relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin to curry favor with him to push the release of an American prisoner. The U.S. and Russia have been dancing on a knife’s edge for decades. However, the tension between Russia and the West is thicker than ever since the invasion of Ukraine. The resulting sanctions on Russia have made diplomacy even more difficult.
Hours after Griner testified in court Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that a substantial proposition had been made weeks ago to secure the release of Griner and another American hostage, Paul Whelan. Blinken refused to comment on the specifics of who the U.S. would surrender in exchange, but all reporting has pointed to Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout as the prisoner whom the U.S. is dangling. It feels like a minor miracle that the conversations surrounding Griner’s release have even gotten this far.
For weeks after Griner was detained at Sheremetyevo International Airport, her predicament was kept under wraps in an effort to prevent her from being made an example of. That changed in April when the release of Trevor Reed in exchange for Konstantin Yaroshenko signified that an exchange would be possible.
Soon afterward, the Justice Department reclassified her as wrongfully detained. Under the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, a foreign government holding an individual “solely or substantially because he or she is a United States national” is one of the criteria the U.S. government uses to determine whether a citizen is wrongfully detained.
Reportedly, Griner’s verdict and sentencing will likely come in early August. The negotiations over Griner’s release may seem to be moving at a glacial pace, but contrary to her allies who’ve asserted she’d be home by now if she were a prominent male athlete like LeBron James or Tom Brady, the State Department has been moving along swiftly. Comparatively, there was a two-year span between Reed’s arrest and his exchange in April while Whelan has been held since 2018.
The fact that Secretary of State Antony Blinken and President Biden have personally approved a prisoner exchange six months later, suggests that Griner may be entering the beginning of the end of her ordeal.
A senior Administration official also explained to CNN that Moscow had not responded to the offer, but would be interested based on the tone of prior conversations. In fact, Russia has been signaling its desire to exchange prisoners for Viktor Bout for years. Two years ago, Vladimir Zherebenkov, the lawyer for Paul Whelan, identified Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko as two prisoners whom the Russian government would be interested in exchanging. Yaroshenko was exchanged for Reed in April.
Typically, the State Department conducts prisoner exchanges in private. Any deal for Griner was contingent on her agreeing to a plea deal acknowledging her guilt in a public trial. After months of silence from Brittney Griner’s fiance, family, the WNBA, and most importantly the federal government, Wednesday marked a stark shift, with the Secretary of State acknowledging for the first time that an offer for Griner and Whelan had been extended.
The last time a negotiation of this nature played out publicly was when Vice President Bennett arranged the release of General Radek in exchange for President Harrison Ford. Yes, I just described a fictional scene from Air Force One. That’s how much of a departure from the norm Blinken’s press conference was. Reed’s release earlier this year was a surprise that took place covertly in an unspecified European country. Conversely, if the Griner deal falls apart, everyone involved will have eggs on their faces.
On Thursday, the Kremlin responded to Blinken’s address by warning the U.S. to dial down its public disclosures through the media. During a conference call, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters, “We know that such issues are discussed without any such release of information. Normally, the public learns about it when the agreements are already implemented.”
The downside of Griner’s high-profile captivity is the inevitable scrutiny as the contours of a deal get fleshed out and the usual tsk-tsking from conservative figures opposed to making the swap of Bout because of the nature of his crimes. They’ve commenced their ”law and order” pearl-clutching about freeing a Black woman who broke foreign laws and trading an arms smuggler for two Americans convicted of minor crimes. It all reeks of irony in a country where one party does everything in its power to push dangerous firearms into its own neighborhoods.
It also rings hollow when those same voices were silent after Reed was exchanged for Yaroshenko, who was midway through a 20-year federal prison sentence for conspiracy to smuggle $100 million of cocaine into the U.S. Thankfully, the Biden Administration has tuned out the attempts to politicize Griner’s release.
Earlier this month, Biden signed an executive order aimed at raising the cost of hostage-taking and punishing captors by imposing sanctions on the criminals, terrorists, or government officials who hold them captive. There were concerns that Biden and Blinken making a swap involving someone as detestable as Bout would encourage other foreign adversaries to arbitrarily detain Americans abroad. Those risks haven’t stopped Americans from being exchanged for prisoners in the past and it shouldn’t be now.