On Thursday, a Russian court docket sentenced basketball star Brittney Griner to 9 years in a penal colony. Griner, who was taking part in in a Russian league through the offseason simply forward of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, was discovered with a few gram of hash oil and obtained almost the utmost sentence after being discovered responsible of drug trafficking.
Now that the trial is over, Griner’s scenario is revealed for what it all the time was: hard-core geopolitics.
The Phoenix Mercury ladies’s basketball celebrity is caught between Russia and the US, competing powers on reverse sides of the Ukraine battle. “It’s unacceptable, and I name on Russia to launch her instantly so she will be together with her spouse, family members, mates, and teammates,” President Joe Biden mentioned in an announcement. The US State Department has been trying to barter for her launch, probably by means of a prisoner swap, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken mentioned the sentencing “additional compounds the injustice of her wrongful detention.”
Griner isn’t a hostage per se, however scholar Danielle Gilbert says that it’s a part of the technique Russia is deploying referred to as hostage diplomacy, the place the nation is utilizing the basketball participant as a pawn to extract concessions from the US.
Griner’s case has “enormously raised the profile of this phenomenon,” Gilbert mentioned. But she’s removed from the primary to be sufferer to it.
“One factor to recollect in these instances is that we’re by no means speaking about exchanging prisoners with our mates. So anytime that there’s one among these prisoner swaps, it’s with a US adversary,” Gilbert mentioned. “The excellent news is that even when there have been geopolitical tensions between the United States and one other nation, that these offers are nonetheless capable of undergo.”
To perceive the complicated dynamics of Griner’s scenario — and what it would seem like going ahead — I spoke with Gilbert, who’s a fellow at Dartmouth College and assistant professor on the United States Air Force Academy. Gilbert is writing a e book on why states and rogue actors take hostages and the way their freedom is negotiated.
This dialog has been frivolously edited for readability.
Brittney Griner isn’t the primary American detained out of the country. Former Marine Trevor Reed was returned house in a prisoner swap with Russia earlier this yr after being detained since 2019.
Give us a way of how these negotiations work. Why do they take so lengthy? Why are they largely behind closed doorways?
Negotiations in these sorts of instances are extraordinarily excessive stakes. These are leaders of adversarial governments who’re looking for widespread floor to convey their residents house or different diplomatic concessions.
So the identical manner that we might take into account it tough for the US and Russia to barter about another political points on the world stage proper now, these instances usually take months or years to play out. There are Americans who’ve been wrongfully detained or held hostage abroad for as a lot as a decade, and plenty of for 5 years or extra. It’s not that the 2 sides are sitting down throughout the desk from one another on daily basis and discovering it inconceivable to barter. But they’re excited about all the totally different overseas coverage pursuits they’ve, and find out how to get the very best discount that they will.
Would you describe Griner’s scenario as hostage taking? I perceive these are actually trumped-up expenses.
I’m actually cautious about once I use the phrase hostage or hostage taking in these sorts of conditions. People are typically very informal about what they name a hostage taking. Specifically, I might take into account it “hostage diplomacy,” which is when states use their felony justice system to arrest foreigners with the intention of utilizing them for overseas coverage leverage.
Yes, she is arrested, she pled responsible to a criminal offense. Russia has a felony justice system, she broke the legislation. However, [there’s] the truth that they’ve accused her and sentenced her with worldwide drug smuggling, which she clearly was not doing and didn’t intend to do. The incontrovertible fact that they sentenced her to a nine-and-a-half-year jail sentence, which is totally exterior the norm of what somebody would get for the quantity of medicine she had in her possession. The incontrovertible fact that they’ve telegraphed that they need prisoners exchanged for her and Paul Whelan’s launch, signifies to me that it is a hostage taking, which is when somebody holds a prisoner with the risk to proceed holding that particular person till sure circumstances are met. In this case, these circumstances are the prisoner alternate or different concessions that they is likely to be asking for behind the scenes.
What are the dangers of a prisoner swap? What is the White House and State Department pondering by means of when it comes to prices on that stability sheet?
The first danger is that it’s rewarding our adversaries for actually fairly heinous conduct. It’s giving up somebody like arms seller Victor Bout, who the United States thought of harmful sufficient to arrest and sentence to 25 years in jail. [Public reporting suggests Bout may be the focus of a possible two-for-one prisoner swap for Griner and another American detained in Russia.] Russia is at present engaged on this completely egregious battle in Ukraine. It’s not precisely the type of second that we might need to be rewarding Russia in any manner. So that’s the short-term downside with a prisoner swap.
There’s additionally a long-term downside with making prisoner swaps or concessions, which is the concern or the chance that it incentivizes future arrests, similar to this one. The extra publicity that this case receives, and the extra consideration that we pay to the potential of a prisoner swap, there’s a concern that that places a goal on the again of Americans touring to Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela sooner or later, the place the leaders have realized that arresting an American is a good way to coerce concessions.
There’s additionally a home political danger, which is that there will be actual divisions among the many American public about what sorts of victims deserve authorities help. And some individuals would say that Brittney Griner’s case is divisive due to the circumstances of her arrest, as a result of it’s a drug cost.
How does Brittney Griner’s case match into this spectrum of how the US is dealing with Americans detained, arrested, or convicted in Russia?
Brittney Griner was designated as wrongfully detained in May, and “wrongfully detained” is an official State Department designation, which implies that the secretary of state has checked out her case and has decided that there’s one thing illegitimate about her arrest and her trial. Americans get arrested abroad on a regular basis for breaking legal guidelines in different international locations. And more often than not, the US authorities doesn’t do something to intervene in these instances. When a US citizen receives this designation, it implies that the US authorities is dedicated to intervening on their behalf.
It additionally implies that the case is taken out of the purview of the Bureau of Consular Affairs, which is actually involved with the welfare of Americans overseas, and transferred into the workplace of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. That workplace serves because the chief diplomat on the world stage that thinks about wrongful detainees and hostages points — and primarily serves as a US chief hostage negotiator.
One of essentially the most placing issues about the best way that her case matches in with all of those different instances is that it has enormously raised the profile of this phenomenon. This is one thing that these of us who observe hostage and detainee points have been fearful about for fairly a while. But the opposite dozens of hostages and wrongful detainees should not family names, and had not gotten the type of consideration that Brittney Griner’s case has now dropped at all of those different instances — and the unjust therapy that American residents are at present dealing with overseas.
What are historic examples or analogs to a possible swap like this in a fraught geopolitical second?
One factor to recollect in these instances is that we’re by no means speaking about exchanging prisoners with our mates. So anytime that there’s one among these prisoner swaps, it’s with a US adversary.
The excellent news is that even when there have been geopolitical tensions between the United States and one other nation, that these offers are nonetheless capable of undergo. So typically these offers are fairly unpopular. The most well-known one is likely to be Bowe Bergdahl, who was a US Army soldier who walked off his base, and was taken captive by the Haqqani Network and the Taliban, and was finally exchanged for 5 senior Taliban officers who had been being held at Guantanamo. That’s in all probability one of the well-known instances of a prisoner swap in current reminiscence.
But there are numerous others which have damaged by means of to the general public consideration. One is Alan Gross, who was wrongfully detained in Cuba, and was finally launched as a part of a prisoner alternate for 3 Cuban prisoners who had been held in a US jail, at a second when the United States was engaged on broader diplomatic negotiations that represented a gap between the US and Cuba.
The 2015 Iran deal often known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was the Obama administration’s deal to carry sanctions on Iran in alternate for limits on their nuclear program, additionally included a prisoner swap. Jason Rezaian, a journalist for the Washington Post, had been the Tehran bureau chief; he was arrested in Iran and charged with espionage. He and his spouse and several other different prisoners had been exchanged as a part of the broader JCPOA deal.
Sometimes these are a lot bigger geopolitical negotiations and never a direct one-for-one prisoner swap.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken lately spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. You don’t have any inside details about that, however what would possibly it seem like, hypothetically, when it comes to what you described as a high-stakes dialog?
There’s an outstanding episode of the Foreign Policy journal podcast, The Negotiators, with Mickey Bergman, who’s the No. 2 man at Ambassador Bill Richardson’s group, the Richardson Center, that conducts a whole lot of these prisoner and hostage negotiations all around the globe. In the interview, Mickey talks about what went down in a prisoner swap negotiation with an American who was imprisoned in Iran.
A hostage negotiation or a prisoner negotiation, in some methods, isn’t that totally different from any negotiation that individuals might need of their skilled or private lives; two individuals come to the desk with various things that they need to get out of it with totally different units of pursuits. The objective is to seek out the place your pursuits align.
Both the Biden and the Putin administrations will need to look good for their very own home audiences. They need to look sturdy on the worldwide stage. The US is fairly clear. We have two Americans who’re wrongfully detained: we wish Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan house as quickly as potential.
The Russians might need an extended checklist of issues that they’re enthusiastic about, that they is likely to be speaking on to the American authorities behind the scenes, even when they’re not saying these issues out loud. That is likely to be prisoners that they need launched from US custody. It is likely to be different diplomatic and financial concessions. And we will surmise that these is likely to be the Russian pursuits, as a result of that’s what different governments have negotiated up to now for the discharge of Americans held hostage overseas. That is likely to be sanctions aid or debt aid. It is likely to be diplomatic recognition, it is likely to be a possibility to become involved in one thing that they need to do internationally.
What can we anticipate going ahead? What indicators will you be watching in Griner’s case?
Today was a really public day with numerous information. She was within the courtroom, she was sentenced, we have now an announcement from the White House. Going ahead, there’s going to be loads much less that we see occur publicly.
Despite the truth that the Biden administration introduced final week that it had beforehand put a proposal on the desk to the Russians, it’s not typical to announce the steps in a negotiation as they’re occurring.
My hunch is that there will likely be a whole lot of outward quiet, and it is going to be mainly a ready recreation. Hopefully, now that the trial is over, and that she has been sentenced, the Russians will likely be able to correctly come to the negotiating desk. And hopefully, they’ll have some compassion and let her and Paul Whelan come again to the United States as shortly as potential.