President Biden is signaling a new willingness to exchange a top prisoner with Russia to get WNBA star Brittney Griner and American citizen Paul Whelan back from Moscow.
The administration’s offer risks giving Russia leverage and could undercut U.S. efforts to hold together an international campaign to isolate Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine.
But Griner’s high profile — an extraordinary athlete breaking ground for the LGBT community — has elicited outrage from the sports world and lawmakers pressuring Biden to secure her release.
Time Magazine’s cover story this week was a profile on Griner, and personal appeals to the president from her wife, WNBA teammates and her coach are credited with sparking Biden to act.
The president has also come under fire for not securing Whelan’s release as part of a prisoner exchange that freed Marine veteran Trevor Reed in April. Whelan has been behind Russian bars for four years on charges of spying, which he denies.
The U.S. classified all three cases as wrongful detentions.
The situation is a tricky political and national security balance for Biden, who would likely receive a political boost from bringing home Americans. But experts say the president also needs to weigh the risks and potential blowback from making a deal with the Russians at a high-stakes moment amid the war in Ukraine.
“Biden is expending a tremendous amount of political capital to bring them home,” said Basil Smikle, Democratic strategist and director of the public policy program at Hunter College.
“It’s important that he has the ability and can bring Americans home so they’re not languishing in foreign jails particularly in Russia, but it’s also important that Americans get the sense that he would do this for everyone, not just the rich and famous.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke on Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to offer the “proposal,” which was reported earlier to be an offer exchanging Griner and Whelan for convicted Russian arms-dealer Viktor Bout, the so-called “merchant of death,” who has served 11 years of his 25-year sentence at a prison in Marion, Ill.
The White House said the offer to the Russians was made several weeks ago, but Blinken made the highly unusual decision this week to publicly disclose that an offer was on the table.
The decision seemed to be an effort to pressure the Russians, while also making clear to the American public that Biden had put a deal on the table for both citizens.
“It wasn’t a decision we took lightly,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Friday. “We felt that in the context of what was happening in both Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan’s cases, as well as what was not happening, that it was important to lay out publicly that there was in fact a serious offer made by the American side that has not been acted on.”
Blinken said that the conversation with Lavrov was “frank” and “direct,” but could not report a breakthrough, telling reporters, “I can’t give you an assessment of whether I think things are any more or less likely, but it was important that he hear directly from me on that.”
The prisoner exchanges are reminiscent of the spy swaps and tense communication between Washington and the Kremlin at the height of the Cold War, said Daniel Fried, former U.S. ambassador to Poland and a distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Council.
“It’s even almost a pre-detente Cold War relationship. The problem we have is that we’re dealing with an aggressive power that has nuclear weapons, and is more virulent, more aggressive than the Soviets,” he said.
“We have the upper hand by a lot — if we keep our nerve and discipline. The Russians have a lot of problems, economically, I suspect politically, they’re more vulnerable,” Fried said, but added that the Russians have “the tactical advantage of not caring about their own citizens.”
While Biden runs the risk of criticism that he’s encouraging adversaries to take Americans hostage, experts say the president is deeply emotive, and is likely more moved by his conversations with families of those wrongfully detained abroad to do everything to bring them home.
Biden secured Reed’s release in April by delivering Konstantin Yaroshenko to Russia. Yaroshenko was serving jail time in the U.S. for a conviction on drug smuggling charges.
“My view is, if there’s an opportunity to bring Americans home, you capitalize on it and you do it, and I think that’s, in the end, what’s motivating the president,” said Aaron David Miller, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and veteran senior State Department official.
Miller said that while every hostage situation is unique, there’s always a debate over the risks versus reward of giving into adversary demands to free detained Americans.
“It seems to me they’re always thinking about ways to embarrass the United States and to essentially look for opportunities.”
There’s also the added complication of Russia’s bloody war in Ukraine. The call between Blinken and Lavrov was the first between the two since the Russian attack began.
However, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Friday that there were no plans for Biden to speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the matter, and she insisted that the outreach would not legitimize Moscow.
“I don’t see how they are legitimized at all,” Jean-Pierre said. “If anything, they are now a pariah [on] the global stage because of what they’re doing.”
Jean-Pierre said that the administration is “doing everything that we can” to bring home Americans detained overseas.
Biden signed an executive order earlier this month that authorized financial sanctions and visa restrictions on individuals directly or indirectly responsible for wrongful detentions of Americans abroad, whether they are state actors or terror organizations.
For some of the families of Americans detained abroad, Blinken’s public offer to Lavrov, and Reed’s earlier release, are positive signals that the U.S. government is working more seriously to free those detained as political pawns.
“The events of the past few days have been quite encouraging,” said Neda Sharghi, whose brother Emad has been detained in Iran since 2018 on charges criticized as politically motivated. “We were encouraged that they’re using all tools available to them, in this case, an exchange to bring home … Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner.”
Sharghi is part of a collective of about 18 families who have loved ones who are held hostage abroad, called the “Bring Our Families Home” campaign, which seeks to more publicly demand action from the government.
“We have learned from certain cases, the Trevor Reed case being one of them, that sometimes families have to put themselves in a very uncomfortable position to get the kinds of reactions they need to get from the White House,” Sharghi said, referring to an intense public campaign by the Reed family that ultimately secured the family face-to-face time with Biden.
Sharghi is still waiting for a meeting with the president to personally advocate her brother’s case.
“It is clear, given President Biden’s own personal history and his desire to provide security for American citizens, that he is touched by the efforts to which we’re all going to get his attention and to get the attention of his administration,” Sharghi said.