WASHINGTON. Immediately after a Moscow judge sentenced Britney Griner to nine years in prison on Thursday, there were growing calls for President Biden to find a way to bring her home.
“We call on President Biden and the United States government to redouble their efforts to do whatever is necessary and possible,” Reverend Al Sharpton said in a statement.
US officials and analysts have come to terms with the conviction of Ms Griner, the basketball star who plays for the Russian team in the WNBA offseason. But the cold reality of her drug conviction came as a shock and renewed calls for Mr. Biden to secure her release — even as critics resented that the offer to swap prisoners with Moscow rewards Russia’s hostage-taking.
As a result, the Biden administration has found itself in a quandary as it attempts to take a hard line on Russian President Vladimir Putin over his war in Ukraine.
“There is nothing good here,” said Andrea Schneider, an expert on international conflict resolution at Cardozo Law School. “Whatever Biden does, he will be criticized either for giving too much or not working hard enough.”
Kremlin officials have said that any potential deal cannot be struck until after her trial is completed, sparking a glimmer of hope that the verdict could open the door to a swap. But analysts called it unlikely anytime soon.
“I don’t think this will be resolved quickly,” said Jared Genser, a human rights lawyer who represents Americans detained by foreign governments. “I think the fact that Putin didn’t say yes right away means he looked at the US proposal and said, ‘Well, this is their first proposal. I can get more.”
The U.S. proposal, first presented to Russia in June, called for the release of Ms. Griner and Paul N. Whelan, a former Marine arrested in Moscow and convicted of espionage in 2020.
The Biden administration offered to trade the two Americans for prominent Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is on his way to a 25-year federal prison sentence for offering to sell arms to a Colombian rebel group that the US then considered a terrorist organization.
The proposal has already changed US diplomacy towards Russia, which has been frozen at the highest level since Mr. Putin’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine. The July 29 telephone conversation between Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken and his Russian counterpart Sergei V. Lavrov was their first conversation since the start of the war. But it seems that the Kremlin was not touched. The White House says Russia made an unspecified “bad faith” counteroffer that the United States does not take seriously.
What you need to know about the Britney Griner case
On Friday, Mr. Lavrov told reporters that the two countries would continue to discuss the issue through established channels. He reiterated the Kremlin’s demand that the United States not discuss the talks publicly, even though Russian media began linking Mr. Bout’s case to Ms. Griner’s in early summer.
But the pressure is one-sided. While Mr. Putin has long sought Mr. Bout’s release, perhaps out of loyalty to a man with close ties to the Russian security state, the continued imprisonment of the arms dealer costs Mr. Putin little. In other words, time is on Mr. Putin’s side.
Mr. Biden, on the other hand, finds himself squeezed from both sides.
On the one hand supporters of Mrs. Griner. Her wife, Cherell Griner, has publicly urged Biden to make a deal with Putin as soon as possible. These calls were echoed by Mr Sharpton, Democratic activist groups, television pundits, professional athletes and social media celebrities. (Mr Sharpton on Thursday also called for Mr Whelan’s release.)
“How could she feel like America had her back?” NBA superstar LeBron James said in mid-July. “I would have thought, ‘Do I even want to go back to America?’
This was before Mr. Biden’s offer to release Mr. Bout was known. Officials said they had unveiled a proposal, confirmed last week by a person briefed on the talks, to increase pressure on Russia. But the revelation may also have reflected a desire to show Ms. Greener’s supporters that Mr. Biden is not sitting idly by.
“We think it’s important for the American people to know how hard President Biden is working to bring Brittney Greener and Paul Whelan home,” White House national security spokesman John F. Kirby said at the time. “We think it’s important for their families to know how hard we’re working on this.”
The fate of Britney Griner in Russia
The American basketball star spent several months in a Russian prison on charges of smuggling hash oil into the country.
After Ms. Greener was sentenced on Thursday, Mr. Biden reaffirmed his commitment to “use every possible avenue to get Britney and Paul Whelan home safe and sound as soon as possible.”
However, the White House has not said how Biden can achieve this goal. “I don’t think it would be helpful for Brittany or Paul if we were more public about where we are in the negotiations and what the President may or may not want to do,” Mr. Kirby said.
But almost any additional proposal is sure to reinforce criticism from the other side of Mr. Biden and accusations that Mr. Biden is leaning towards extortion from Mr. Putin, a man he has called a war criminal.
“That’s why dictatorships like Venezuela, Iran, China, Russia take Americans hostage because they know they’re getting something,” Rep. Mike Waltz, a Florida Republican, told Newsmax last week. “They know that eventually some administration will pay. And it just puts a target on the back of every American.”
Mike Pompeo, a former secretary of state, echoed the criticism in an interview with Fox News last week, saying that Bout’s release is “likely to lead to more” arrests of Americans abroad. And former President Donald J. Trump, who prided himself in office on releasing detained Americans overseas, has lashed out at the proposed deal.
According to him, Mr. Bout was “absolutely one of the worst in the world and will be given his freedom because a potentially corrupted person is sent to Russia loaded with drugs.” (Russian officials who detained Ms Griner at an airport near Moscow in mid-February found less than one gram of cannabis vaping oil in her bags.)
Mr. Genser, a lawyer for other detained Americans, noted that Mr. Biden has a choice other than raising his offer. He could look for new ways to make Mr. Putin suffer.
“The cost of keeping them in custody for Vladimir Putin needs to be drastically increased,” Genser said. “It’s not just about giving Putin what he wants. It’s about exacerbating his pain at the same time.”
However, this is not an easy task. Biden administration officials have spent months trying to think of ways to inflict enough pain on Mr. Putin to force him to stop invading Ukraine. Like the freedom of Ms. Greener and Mr. Whelan, this goal also remains elusive.