September 25, 2023

WASHINGTON — In the immediate aftermath of Brittney Griner being sentenced to nine years in prison Thursday by a Moscow judge, calls grew louder 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,” the Reverend Al Sharpton said in a statement.

American officials and analysts had balked at a guilty verdict for Ms. Griner, a basketball star who plays for a Russian team during the WNBA’s off-season. But the cold reality of her drug sentence came as a shock and renewed calls for Mr Biden to secure her release – even as critics lamented that the prisoner swap offer with Moscow was rewarding the Russian hostage.

The result is a painful dilemma for the Biden administration as it tries to maintain a hard line against President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia over his war in Ukraine.

“There is nothing good here,” said Andrea Schneider, an expert in international conflict resolution at the Cardozo School of Law. “No matter what Biden does, he’s going to be criticized — either that we’re giving too much or we’re not working hard enough.”

Kremlin officials had said any potential deal could not go ahead before her trial is over, raising a glimmer of hope that the verdict could open the door to an exchange. But analysts called it unlikely soon.

“I don’t think this is going to 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 offer and said, ‘Well, this is their first offer. I can take more than that.”

That U.S. offer, first presented to Russia in June, sought the release of Ms. Griner and Paul N. Whelan, a former Marine who was arrested in Moscow and convicted of espionage in 2020.

The Biden administration offered to swap the two Americans for notorious Russian arms dealer Victor Bout, who is in the middle of a 25-year federal prison sentence for offering to sell weapons to a Colombian rebel group that the United States then considered a terrorist organization.

The proposal has already reshaped US diplomacy towards Russia, which had been frozen at higher levels since Mr Putin’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine. A July 29 phone call on the issue between Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, was their first conversation since the war began. But it appeared to leave the Kremlin unmoved. The White House says Russia has made an unspecified “bad faith” counteroffer that the United States is not taking seriously.

On Friday, Mr Lavrov told reporters that the two nations would continue to discuss the issue through established channels. He reiterated the Kremlin’s insistence that the United States not publicly discuss the negotiations, although Russian media began linking Mr. Bout’s case to Ms. Griner’s in early summer.

But the pressure is two-way. While Mr. Putin has long sought Mr. Bout’s release, perhaps out of loyalty to a man with deep ties to Russia’s security state, the arms dealer’s continued imprisonment has cost Mr. Putin little. Time, in other words, is on Mr Putin’s side.

Mr. Biden, on the other hand, finds himself squeezed from two sides.

On one side are Ms. Griner’s supporters. Her wife, Cheryl Griner, has made public calls for Mr. Biden to cut 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 on Thursday also called for Mr Whelan’s release.)

“How could she feel that America has her back?” NBA superstar LeBron James said in mid-July. “I would feel, ‘Do I even want to go back to America?’

This was before Mr. Biden’s proposal to release Mr. Bout was made public. Officials said they disclosed the offer, which was confirmed last week by a person briefed on the talks, to increase pressure on Russia. But the revelation may also reflect a desire to show Ms. Griner’s supporters that Mr. Biden was not sitting on his hands.

“We believe it is important for the American people to know how hard President Biden is working to bring Brittney Griner 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.”

After Ms. Griner’s sentencing on Thursday, Mr. Biden renewed his commitment to “pursue every avenue possible to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan safely home as soon as possible.”

However, the White House would not say how Mr. Biden might achieve that goal. “I don’t think it would be helpful for Brittany or Paul for us to talk more publicly about where we are in the talks and what the president might or might not want to do,” Mr. Kirby said.

But almost any additional offer would certainly bolster criticism from the other side of Mr. Biden — and accusations that Mr. Biden has stooped to blackmail 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 going to get something for it,” Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Florida, told Newsmax last week. “They know that eventually some administration will pay. And that just puts a target on the back of every American out there.”

Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state, repeated the criticism in an interview with Fox News last week, saying Mr. Bout’s release “would likely lead to the arrest of more” Americans abroad. And former President Donald J. Trump, who when in office prided himself on freeing Americans held overseas, criticized the proposed deal in stark terms.

Mr Bout, he said, was “absolutely one of the worst in the world and he will be given freedom because a potentially depraved person goes to Russia loaded with drugs”. (Russian officials who arrested Ms. Griner at a Moscow airport in mid-February found less than a gram of cannabis vapor oil in her bags.)

Mr. Genser, the lawyer for other imprisoned Americans, noted that Mr. Biden has an option beyond making his offer. He could be looking for new ways to make Mr. Putin suffer.

“You have to dramatically increase the cost to Vladimir Putin to keep them in custody,” Mr Genser said. “It’s not just about giving Putin what he wants. It’s about increasing the pain for him at the same time.”

However, this is not an easy task. Officials in the Biden administration have spent months trying to devise ways to inflict enough pain on Mr. Putin to force him to halt his invasion of Ukraine. Like Ms. Griner’s and Mr. Whelan’s freedom, that goal remains elusive.

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