Now that WNBA star Brittney Griner has been convicted of drug possession and sentenced to nine years in prison, attention is focused on the prospect of a prisoner swap between the United States and Russia that could bring her home.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken went public with that possibility last week, revealing in an unusual announcement that the US had made a “substantial proposal” to secure the release of Griner and another imprisoned American, Paul Whelan.
With her trial finalized and her sentence handed down, such a deal — assuming one can be reached with the Russians — is Griner’s best shot at early parole.
While the conviction was seen as a foregone conclusion, imposing a sentence that its lawyers judged to be much longer than average could give the US additional incentive to close a deal that is palatable to Russia as soon as possible. And the formal end to the lawsuit could be the opening that both sides need to forge a diplomatic solution as well.
A look at what’s at stake:
WHAT DOES THE US OFFER?
Blinken did not specify the terms other than to describe the offer as substantial and something he planned to discuss with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
A person familiar with the situation said the US offered to release Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year prison sentence on charges of conspiracy to sell tens of millions of dollars worth of weapons to the former Colombian FARC guerrilla army. . At the time of his conviction, the group was classified by the US as a foreign terrorist organization, although that designation was revoked last year.
The officials ended telephone calls last Friday, the highest known contact between the two sides since Russia invaded Ukraine. They are also in Cambodia for meetings with foreign ministers of Southeast Asian countries.
WHAT IS THE RUSSIAN ANSWER?
Minimally, at least in public. Blinken gave no details about his response after his call with Lavrov. The Russians gave no hint of their interest in the offer, other than a statement reprimanding the US for pursuing American freedom 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 didn’t elaborate, though TSWT reported last week that Moscow also wanted the release of a former colonel of one of its spy agencies who was convicted of murder in Germany last year.
WOULD THERE BE A PRECEDENT FOR A PRISON CHANGE?
In many ways, yes – and a recent one too. In April, Russia traded Navy veteran Trevor Reed, convicted of a physical altercation with the Moscow police, for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot jailed for cocaine trafficking conspiracy.
But it involved a Russian of far less fame than Bout, a former Soviet Air Force officer who once inspired a Hollywood movie and earned the nickname the “Merchant of Death” over allegations that he supplied weapons used for civil wars in countries around the world. He has adamantly maintained his innocence.
But there isn’t much recent precedent for public discussions of prisoner swapping, at least not by the US government, before the deal is done and planes are in the air. That made Blinken’s announcement from the briefing room of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs all the more striking.
On the one hand, it seemed intended to communicate to the public that the government will do whatever it takes to bring home unjustly detained Americans.
But such a public overture also threatens to weaken the government’s negotiating hand to the extent that the US is overly desperate for a deal, or signals to other countries that they are willing to grant potentially unreasonable demands.
SO WILL THE DEAL TAKE PLACE?
It’s hard to say, but the contact between Blinken and Lavrov does suggest more progress than before. It also reinforces the idea that the two countries are willing to stay in touch despite extraordinary tensions over Moscow’s invasion of Moscow.
Griner is the most prominent American held by another country. She is a two-time Olympic gold medalist who has been detained since February when police said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage at an airport in Moscow. And while some Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, have spoken out against a deal, the conviction and verdict will only increase the pressure on the administration to reach a deal that will allow it to get out quickly.
“Today’s sentencing of Brittney Griner was harsh by Russian legal standards and proves what we’ve always known that Brittney is being used as a political pawn,” Griner’s agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas tweeted Thursday.
She said it may be difficult to get a deal for Griner and Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive jailed over an espionage conviction he and his family believe is groundless, but it’s “urgent” and “the right thing to do.” to do”. The US government also considers Whelan to be wrongly convicted.
The Russian authorities, for their part, have suggested that they essentially regard a conviction as a precondition for a prisoner swap.
On Thursday, President Joe Biden again urged Russia to release Griner immediately.
“My administration will continue to work tirelessly and use all possible avenues to get Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible,” he said in a statement.
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