WASHINGTON — Now that WNBA star Brittney Griner has been convicted of drug possession and sentenced to nine years in prison, attention is turning to the possibility of a prisoner swap between the United States and Russia that could bring her home.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken made that possibility public last week, revealing in a rare announcement that the United States had made a “substantial proposal” aimed at securing the release of Griner and another imprisoned American, Paul Whelan.
With her court case concluded and her sentence pronounced, that deal, assuming one can be struck with the Russians, is Griner’s best chance of being released early.
Although the guilty verdict was seen as a foregone conclusion, the imposition of a sentence that his lawyers denounced as much longer than average could give the United States an additional push to reach a deal acceptable to Russia as soon as possible. And the formal end of the court case could be the opening both sides need to forge a diplomatic resolution as well.
Blinken did not specify terms other than to describe the offer as substantial and something he intended to discuss with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
A person familiar with the situation said the United States has offered to release Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year prison sentence on charges of conspiring to sell tens of millions of dollars worth of weapons to the former guerrilla group of the Colombian FARC. At the time of his conviction, the group was classified by the United States as a foreign terrorist organization, although that designation was removed last year.
The officials ended up speaking by phone last Friday, the highest-level known contact between the two sides since Russia invaded Ukraine. They are also in Cambodia for meetings involving foreign ministers from Southeast Asian countries.
Minimal, at least in public. Blinken did not provide details after his call with Lavrov about his response. The Russians gave no hint of their interest in the offer, aside from a statement berating the US for seeking the freedom of Americans through “quiet diplomacy, without disclosing speculative information.”
On Monday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the Russian government had responded in “bad faith” with an offer that US officials did not consider serious. She gave no further details, although CNN reported last week that Moscow also wanted the release of a former colonel in one of its spy agencies who was convicted of murder in Germany last year.
In many ways, yes, and a recent one too. In April, Russia swapped Navy veteran Trevor Reed, convicted of a physical altercation with police in Moscow, for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot jailed for a cocaine-trafficking conspiracy.
However, that involved a Russian with far less notoriety than Bout, a former Soviet air force officer who once inspired a Hollywood movie and earned the nickname “Merchant of Death” for allegations that he supplied weapons used for civil wars in countries around the world. . He has steadfastly maintained his innocence.
But there isn’t much recent precedent for public discussions of prisoner swaps, at least by the US government, before the deal is done and the planes are in the air. That’s what made Blinken’s announcement from the State Department briefing room all the more compelling.
On the one hand, it seemed intended to communicate to the public that the administration will do whatever it takes to bring home wrongfully detained Americans.
But such a public opening also risks weakening the administration’s negotiating hand to the extent that it makes the US appear too desperate for a deal, or signals to other countries that it is willing to meet potentially unreasonable demands.
It’s hard to say, but the contact between Blinken and Lavrov suggests more progress than has been made before. It also reinforces the idea that the two countries are willing to maintain communication despite extraordinary tensions related to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
Griner is the most prominent American detained by a foreign country. She is a two-time Olympic gold medalist in detention since February when police said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage at a Moscow airport. And while some Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, have voiced opposition to a deal, the conviction and sentencing will only increase pressure on the administration to reach a deal that could get her out soon.
“Today’s sentence of Brittney Griner was harsh by Russian legal standards and demonstrates what we have known all along, that Brittney is being used as a political pawn,” Lindsay Kagawa Colas, Griner’s agent, tweeted Thursday.
She said getting a deal for Griner and Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive jailed for an espionage conviction he and his family say is baseless, may be difficult, but it is “urgent” and “the right thing to do.” The US government also believes that Whelan was wrongfully convicted.
For their part, the Russian authorities have suggested that they view a conviction essentially as a prerequisite for a prisoner swap.
On Thursday, President Joe Biden again urged Russia to release Griner immediately.
“My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every avenue possible to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as quickly as possible,” he said in a statement.