On Wednesday afternoon, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the U.S. had offered Russia a “substantial proposal” aimed at securing the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan.
Now the question is whether it will be enough to bring the two jailed Americans home.
Will the Russians accept a 2-for-1 trade for a notorious arms trafficker who for years has been atop the Kremlin’s prisoner exchange wish list? Or will they seek to extract more concessions from the U.S. than the release of Viktor Bout?
Yahoo Sports spoke with a handful of experts on hostage diplomacy and Russian foreign policy on Thursday to assess how the negotiations might proceed from here. Several experts said that a deal may yet be months away — and that the final iteration is unlikely to match what the U.S. has already proposed.
Dartmouth University foreign policy fellow Danielle Gilbert contends that the U.S. wouldn’t have publicly revealed its trade offer if it thought Russia was poised to accept. To Gilbert, Blinken’s comments on Wednesday portend “complicated negotiations” that are “a few steps away from being completed.”
“My hunch is that this is not going to be the final deal,” Gilbert said.
William Pomeranz, an authority on Russian law and politics, agreed that the Kremlin won’t be in any hurry to accept the Biden administration’s initial offer. Biden, Pomeranz pointed out, is under increasing pressure to secure Griner’s release. Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, “would like to bring Bout back, but, after 14 years, by no means is it the same level of urgency.”
“The U.S. pretty much laid its cards on the table, and now it’s the Russians who are in the driver’s seat,” said Pomeranz, the acting director of the Kennan Institute. “They can now dictate whether this prisoner swap happens and how fast this moves.”
Blinken said Wednesday that the U.S. initially made its offer to the Kremlin “weeks ago” and that the governments have since “communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal.” In a sharp reversal of the U.S.’s recent isolationist policy toward Russia, Blinken said that he intends to soon “follow up personally” about Griner and Whelan with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov expressed surprise on Thursday that the U.S. went public with its offer rather than adhering to the diplomatic silence that often typifies prisoner release negotiations. Peskov emphasized that “no agreements have been finalized” but he did not shoot down the possibility that a deal eventually could be reached.
Russian officials have previously said they won’t accept any deal until the conclusion of Griner’s drug trial. Griner’s attorney, Maria Blagovolina, told Yahoo Sports on Thursday that she expects a verdict and sentencing to occur during the first half of August.
Griner has been behind bars since Feb. 17 when she flew into a Moscow airport and Russian customs officials allegedly found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. She has been charged with possession of an illegal drug and drug smuggling and could receive a prison sentence of up to 10 years if convicted.
In early May, the State Department classified Griner as wrongfully detained without explanation and began working to negotiate her release.
Whelan, a former Marine, is currently serving a 16-year sentence for espionage charges that he has consistently denied and that the State Department has described as bogus.
Blinken’s public acknowledgement of an offer for Griner and Whelan reflects the mounting pressure on the administration to get both home. The U.S.’s inability to secure Griner’s release, in particular, has drawn criticism from celebrities of all kinds, from LeBron James, to Kim Kardashian, to Kerry Washington, to Amy Schumer.
“One of the things going public does is quiet the critics who say that the administration isn't working on this, that they're not doing enough,” Gilbert said. “This can be a direct response to those criticisms. I think it also tells us very publicly that the administration is committed to getting Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan back and getting them back together.”
While the Biden administration has shielded itself from criticism that it isn't doing enough to help Griner and other detained Americans, the President has also opened himself to new attacks. Some have already argued that Blinken’s news conference needlessly antagonized the Kremlin, jeopardized negotiations for Griner and Whelan and incentivized the kidnapping of Americans traveling abroad in the future.
“Every tinhorn dictator out there is looking at America and how we handle hostage cases and unjust detention cases,” said Jason Poblete, an attorney who has represented U.S. citizens held hostage abroad. “The Secretary of State went on national television and made a spectacle of this. You don’t think they’re thinking, ‘Wait a minute, if we grab ourselves an American, we’ll be able to negotiate with them, exact concessions and who knows what else they will dream up.'”
The U.S. had good reason to think that the inclusion of Bout in a trade would be enough to tempt Russia. After all, Russian officials have been trying to get the so-called “Merchant of Death” back ever since the 2008 DEA sting operation that led to his capture in Thailand.
Not only did the Kremlin publicly denounce the charges against Bout after his arrest, American officials also became aware of underhanded Russian attempts to block his extradition to the U.S., to bribe key witnesses or to buy his freedom.
"Putin and other high-level government officials really tried to move heaven and earth and get him repatriated to Russia," Michael Braun, the DEA’s former chief of operations, told Yahoo Sports.
Added Tom Pasquarello, another former DEA agent: "Everything was on the table to try to free him. I'm telling you, you can't even imagine."
Russia didn’t give up after Bout was extradited to the U.S. and convicted of conspiring to kill Americans and sell weapons to terrorists. Russian state media has repeatedly floated potential prisoner trades for Bout while he is serving a 25-year sentence in Illinois.
Experts who spoke to Yahoo Sports in May agreed that securing Bout’s release is a priority for Russia because of his high-level government and military intelligence connections. They said that Bout operated with state protection throughout his arms trafficking career and that he often served the government’s foreign policy interests once Vladimir Putin rose to power and reconsolidated Russia’s fractured intelligence services.
“He is affiliated with Russia’s security services,” Pomeranz said. “Security services like to get their people back. This is the most prominent Russian in U.S. custody, so we assume that this is where the deal can be made.”
If a deal swapping Griner and Whelan for Bout can still be done, it likely will be on Russia’s terms and timetable.
Said Gilbert: “The White House has come out and said, ‘We’re not dragging our feet here. We tried to resolve this.’ Now the ball is in Russia’s court.”