Swapping an American jailed for a minor drugs offense in Russia for one of the world’s most notorious arms traffickers known as “The Merchant of Death” might seem like a lopsided deal that could fuel dangerous national security precedents.
But President Joe Biden’s decision to exchange WNBA star Brittney Griner for Viktor Bout goes beyond the exchange’s bottom line. It represented a humane resolution to a painful dilemma that came after tortuous talks with a Russian regime that treats people as geopolitical pawns every day. In that sense, the Biden administration demonstrated the gulf between its moral grounding and that of Russian President Vladimir Putin who is currently demonstrating his inhumanity on another front, with a fearsome assault on Ukrainian civilians.
But the tragic counterpoint to this diplomatic triumph – Biden’s failure to also secure the release of Paul Whelan, another American incarcerated in a Russian penal colony – underscored the unforgiving moral conundrum he faced. And it prompted top Republicans to charge that he had prioritized a basketball superstar over an ex-marine who benefited from a vocal political pressure campaign on Biden.
There is no getting around the potential implications of the steps that Biden took, which followed earlier prisoner swaps with US adversaries conducted by his administration – including for an American and former US marine detained in Russia, Trevor Reed – and those of former presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. There is now a considerable risk that other rogue nations or groups see Washington as open for business and may therefore see Americans abroad as increasingly valuable targets in a vicious cycle of more detentions.
Furthermore, the return of Bout, who has been linked to Russian security services, handed Putin a propaganda coup at a time of rising domestic pressure. It enabled him to demonstrate to intelligence operatives engaged in nefarious activity abroad that they will not be forgotten by the Kremlin. Those intelligence services are critical to the Russian leader’s continued hold on power as his war in Ukraine deteriorates even further. Still, Biden’s strategy also hinted at intriguing diplomatic possibilities, three days after he refused to rule out future talks with Putin, if Ukraine’s agrees, aimed at ending the vicious war. He showed it was possible to deal with Russia, even amid an effective proxy war between the two old Cold War foes in Ukraine amid the worst relations between Moscow and Washington since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Another notable cog in this deal was Saudi Arabia, which helped facilitate the exchange alongside the United Arab Emirates – and also helped secure the release of US citizens captured fighting in Ukraine earlier this year. Whether the kingdom, which has relations with both Moscow and Washington and is seeking to increase its global leadership role, might emerge as a mediator over Ukraine remains to be seen. But its recent smoothing of US-Russia exchanges might put Biden’s decision to travel to the country earlier this year and greet its ruthless Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with a fist bump, in a slightly different light.
Ultimately, it’s impossible for there not to be a sour aftertaste when dealing with an adversary as inhumane as Putin. But it is the job of a president to weigh these competing dynamics within the context of America’s national goals and duty to its citizens.
In cases like these, there is never a right answer.
The most immediate question now facing Biden is how to extract Whelan, whose hopes were raised and then smashed, as he remained in prison and Griner went home, after both Americans were at the center of US-Russia diplomacy.
“This is a precarious situation that needs to be resolved quickly,” a deeply disappointed Whelan told CNN’s State Department producer Jennifer Hansler in an exclusive phone interview. “I would hope that (Biden) and his administration would do everything they could to get me home, regardless of the price they might have to pay at this point.”
The harsh truth for Whelan is that Russia refused every inducement the US could offer to include him in an exchange package, leaving Biden’s capacity to free him in short order in doubt.
Russian officials told the US side that a one-for-two swap was not acceptable but resisted wider options, US officials said.
John Kirby, the National Security Council’s coordinator for strategic communications, told CNN that the Kremlin regarded Whelan in a different light than Griner, since he’s facing espionage charges – even though the US says such allegations are a sham. This added dimension to Whelan’s incarceration will fuel speculation that Moscow may leverage him as it seeks a three-way deal with Germany to free a former colonel from its domestic spy agency who was convicted of murder last year. CNN reported in August that Russia had requested Vadim Krasikov be included in a deal for the two Americans.
This adds another layer of complication for Biden as he seeks to get Whelan free, since it involves another government and would require German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to potentially agree to supersede his country’s own legal system. Whether the new German leader has the political capacity to do so is unclear, as is the kind of Russian concession Berlin might require.
A senior administration official said on Thursday evening that there is a recognition in the White House that the US needs to make available “something more, something different” from what they have offered to the Russians so far, CNN reported.
While Biden is being castigated by some political opponents in Washington for doing a bad deal, administration officials insisted that he got the best one on offer.
“I want to be very clear – this was not a situation where we had a choice of which American to bring home. It was a choice between bringing home one particular American, Brittney Griner, or bringing home none,” a senior administration official told reporters on Thursday.
Evelyn Farkas, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, told CNN she thought Putin was never going to hand over Whelan and all along wanted to swap only Griner for Bout.
“It’s happening now because Vladimir Putin wants this to happen now, he needs a win, he needs a victory in Russia because he is having trouble convincing the Russia people that it’s a good idea to be at war with Ukraine,” Farkas said.
She added that there remained some hope for Whelan because the Griner exchange did show that “the Russians will make a deal if they think it’s in their interests.”
Whelan isn’t the only American imprisoned in Russia. The family of US teacher Marc Fogel, who is serving a 14 year sentence at a hard labor camp, has also called for the White House to negotiate his release. Fogel was arrested last year in Moscow after traveling into the country with cannabis that his lawyer said was used for medical purposes.
The fierce political divides that now challenge every US foreign policy decision did not take long to bubble over after Griner was freed – alongside a more vicious reaction on social media as some conservatives questioned her patriotism.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he was relieved Griner was free but raised questions about the wisdom of such exchanges and whether they could endanger other Americans.
“I think the challenge this points to is these regimes know this. This is why (President Nicolas) Maduro traded five Citgo executives – who were lured to Venezuela to get arrested – for his nephews who are convicted drug traffickers,” Rubio said.
“That’s why you trade a professional basketball player with CBD oil for the Merchant of Death. These are bad trades,” he said.
Another Republican, Rep. Mike Waltz of Florida described the deal to free Griner in a Twitter post as “shameful” and accused the administration of “giving priority to a celebrity over a veteran.”
In a later interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Waltz said: “This is a tactical victory, I am glad she is coming home. But this is a strategic loss.”
“The reason the Iranian regime, the Taliban, Putin himself, continue to take Americans hostage is we continue to make concessions. When do we start dictating the terms to these regimes?”
Whelan’s family reacted with great dignity in welcoming Griner’s release, despite their devastation that their brother did not come home. Elizabeth Whelan, Paul’s sister, called for political unity over the fate of hostages abroad, saying that hostile foreign countries are trying to use such cases to stir dissent in the US.
Whelan also urged people to understand the human angle of Biden’s dilemma despite the grave geopolitical issues at stake.
“It’s an amazing thing to be able to get Brittney back. It’s a win for us,” she said.
“We tend to always look at what is Russia getting out of this? … We are getting a wrongfully detained American back home. It’s something to celebrate.”