WASHINGTON — Immediately after a Moscow judge handed down Brittney Griner’s nine-year prison sentence on Thursday, calls intensified for President Biden to find a way to bring her home.
“We call on President Biden and the government of the United States to redouble their efforts to do all that is necessary and possible,” Reverend Al Sharpton said in a statement.
US officials and analysts had resigned themselves to a guilty verdict for Ms. Griner, a basketball star who plays for a Russian team during the WNBA offseason. But the chilling reality of his drug trafficking conviction came as a shock and renewed calls for Mr Biden to secure his release – even as critics fumed that the offer to swap prisoners with Moscow rewards the taking of Russian hostages.
The result is a painful dilemma for the Biden administration as it tries to maintain a hard line against Russian President Vladimir V. Putin over his war in Ukraine.
“There’s nothing good here,” said Andrea Schneider, an international dispute resolution expert at the Cardozo School of Law. “No matter what Biden does, he’s going to be criticized – either we give too much or we don’t work hard enough.”
Kremlin officials had said no potential deal could be reached before his trial was over, raising a glimmer of hope that the verdict could open the door to a swap. But analysts called that unlikely any time soon.
“I don’t think this is going to be resolved quickly,” said Jared Genser, a human rights attorney who represents Americans detained by foreign governments. “I think the fact that Putin didn’t say yes right away means he looked at the American offer and said, ‘Well, that’s their first offer. I can get more than that.
The US offer, first presented to Russia in June, sought the release of Ms Griner and Paul N. Whelan, a former Marine arrested in Moscow and convicted of espionage in 2020.
The Biden administration has offered to trade the two Americans for notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is halfway through a 25-year federal prison sentence for offering to sell arms to a rebel group Colombian that the United States then considered a terrorist organization.
The proposal has already reshaped US diplomacy toward Russia, which had been frozen at senior levels since Mr. Putin’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine. A July 29 phone call between Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and his Russian counterpart, Sergei V. Lavrov, was their first conversation since the start of the war. But that seemed to leave the Kremlin indifferent. The White House says Russia made an unspecified “bad faith” counter-offer that the United States does not take seriously.
What you need to know about the Brittney Griner affair
On Friday, Lavrov told reporters that the two countries would continue to discuss the issue through established channels. He repeated the Kremlin’s insistence that the United States not discuss the negotiations in public, although Russian media began linking Mr. Bout’s case with that of Ms. Griner in early summer.
But the pressure is unbalanced. While Mr Putin has long called for Mr Bout’s release, perhaps out of loyalty to a man with deep ties to the Russian security state, the arms dealer’s continued imprisonment costs Mr Putin little . Time, in other words, is in Mr. Putin’s favour.
Mr. Biden, on the other hand, finds himself stuck on both sides.
On one side are Ms. Griner’s supporters. His wife, Cherelle Griner, has publicly pleaded for Mr. Biden to strike a deal with Mr. Putin as soon as possible. Those calls have been echoed by Mr Sharpton, Democratic activist groups, TV pundits, professional athletes and social media celebrities. (Mr. Sharpton also called for Mr. Whelan’s release on Thursday.)
“How could she feel like America has her back?” said NBA superstar LeBron James in mid-July. “I would be like, ‘Do I even want to go back to America? “”
This was before Mr. Biden’s proposal to free Mr. Bout became public. Officials said they leaked the offer, which was 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 Griner supporters that Mr Biden was not sitting on his hands.
“We think it’s important for the American people to know how hard President Biden is working to bring Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan home,” security spokesman John F. Kirby said at the time. National White House. “We think it’s important their families know how hard we’re working on this.”
The fate of Brittney Griner in Russia
The American basketball star endured months in a Russian prison for smuggling hash oil into the country.
Following Ms Griner’s sentencing on Thursday, Mr Biden renewed his commitment to “pursue all possible avenues to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible”.
However, the White House would not say how Mr. Biden could achieve this goal. “I don’t think it would help Brittany or Paul if we talked more publicly about where we are in the talks and what the president might or might not be willing to do,” Mr. Kirby said. .
But almost any additional offers would surely amplify criticism from Mr. Biden’s other flank – and accusations that Mr. Biden was pandering to extortion from Mr. Putin, a man whom Mr. he called a war criminal.
“That’s why dictatorships – like Venezuela, Iran, China, Russia – hold Americans hostage, because they know they’ll get something out of it,” said Rep. Mike Waltz, Republican from Florida, to Newsmax last week. “They know that eventually an administration will pay. And that just puts a target on the back of every American out there.
Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state, echoed the criticism in a Fox News interview last week, saying Mr Bout’s release would ‘probably lead to the arrest’ of more Americans abroad. And former President Donald J. Trump, who when in office bragged about freeing Americans detained overseas, criticized the proposed deal in crude terms.
Mr Bout, he said, was “absolutely one of the worst in the world, and he is going to be freed because a potentially spoiled person walks into Russia high on drugs”. (Russian officials who detained Ms Griner at a Moscow-area airport in mid-February found less than a gram of cannabis vaping oil in her bags.)
Mr. Genser, the attorney for other detained Americans, noted that Mr. Biden had an option beyond increasing his offer. He could be looking for new ways to make Mr. Putin suffer.
“You have to significantly increase the cost for Vladimir Putin to keep them in detention,” Genser said. “It’s not just about giving Putin what he wants. This is to simultaneously increase the pain for him.
This is however not an easy task. Biden administration officials have spent months trying to find ways to inflict enough pain on Mr. Putin to stop him from invading Ukraine. Like the freedom of Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan, that goal too remains elusive.