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How can the US bring Brittney Griner home?

A scholar on hostage negotiations explains.

Brittney Griner, who was detained at a Moscow airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, leaves the courtroom after the court’s verdict in Khimki outside Moscow, on August 4, 2022.
Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images
Jonathan Guyer covers foreign policy, national security, and global affairs for Vox. From 2019 to 2021, he worked at the American Prospect, where as managing editor he reported on Biden’s and Trump's foreign policy teams.

On Thursday, a Russian court sentenced basketball star Brittney Griner to nine years in a penal colony. Griner, who was playing in a Russian league during the offseason just ahead of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, was found with about a gram of hash oil and received nearly the maximum sentence after being found guilty of drug trafficking.

Now that the trial is over, Griner’s situation is revealed for what it always was: hard-core geopolitics.

The Phoenix Mercury women’s basketball superstar is caught between Russia and the US, competing powers on opposite sides of the Ukraine war. “It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates,” President Joe Biden said in a statement. The US State Department has been attempting to negotiate for her release, possibly through a prisoner swap, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the sentencing “further compounds the injustice of her wrongful detention.”

Griner is not a hostage per se, but scholar Danielle Gilbert says that it’s part of the strategy Russia is deploying called hostage diplomacy, where the country is using the basketball player as a pawn to extract concessions from the US.

Griner’s case has “enormously raised the profile of this phenomenon,” Gilbert said. But she’s far from the first to be victim to it.

“One thing to remember in these cases is that we’re never talking about exchanging prisoners with our friends. So anytime that there’s one of these prisoner swaps, it’s with a US adversary,” Gilbert said. “The good news is that even when there have been geopolitical tensions between the United States and another country, that these deals are still able to go through.”

To understand the complex dynamics of Griner’s situation — and what it might look like going forward — I spoke with Gilbert, who is a fellow at Dartmouth College and assistant professor at the United States Air Force Academy. Gilbert is writing a book on why states and rogue actors take hostages and how their freedom is negotiated.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Jonathan Guyer

Brittney Griner isn’t the first American detained in a foreign country. Former Marine Trevor Reed was returned home in a prisoner swap with Russia earlier this year after being detained since 2019.

Give us a sense of how these negotiations work. Why do they take so long? Why are they mostly behind closed doors?

Danielle Gilbert

Negotiations in these kinds of cases are extremely high stakes. These are leaders of adversarial governments who are trying to find common ground to bring their citizens home or other diplomatic concessions.

So the same way that we would consider it difficult for the US and Russia to negotiate about any other political issues on the world stage right now, these cases often take months or years to play out. There are Americans who’ve been wrongfully detained or held hostage overseas for as much as a decade, and many for five years or more. It’s not that the two sides are sitting down across the table from each other every day and finding it impossible to negotiate. But they are thinking about all of the different foreign policy interests they have, and how to get the best bargain that they can.

Jonathan Guyer

Would you describe Griner’s situation as hostage taking? I understand these are really trumped-up charges.

Danielle Gilbert

I’m really careful about when I use the word hostage or hostage taking in these kinds of situations. People are sometimes very casual about what they call a hostage taking. Specifically, I would consider it “hostage diplomacy,” which is when states use their criminal justice system to arrest foreigners with the intention of using them for foreign policy leverage.

Yes, she is arrested, she pled guilty to a crime. Russia has a criminal justice system, she broke the law. However, [there’s] the fact that they have accused her and sentenced her with international drug smuggling, which she clearly was not doing and didn’t intend to do. The fact that they sentenced her to a nine-and-a-half-year prison sentence, which is completely outside the norm of what someone would get for the amount of drugs she had in her possession. The fact that they have telegraphed that they want prisoners exchanged for her and Paul Whelan’s release, indicates to me that this is a hostage taking, which is when someone holds a prisoner with the threat to continue holding that person until certain conditions are met. In this case, those conditions are the prisoner exchange or other concessions that they might be asking for behind the scenes.

Jonathan Guyer

What are the risks of a prisoner swap? What is the White House and State Department thinking through in terms of costs on that balance sheet?

Danielle Gilbert

The first risk is that it is rewarding our adversaries for really quite heinous behavior. It’s giving up someone like arms dealer Victor Bout, who the United States considered dangerous enough to arrest and sentence to 25 years in prison. [Public reporting suggests Bout may be the focus of a possible two-for-one prisoner swap for Griner and another American detained in Russia.] Russia is currently engaged in this totally egregious war in Ukraine. It’s not exactly the kind of moment that we would want to be rewarding Russia in any way. So that’s the short-term problem with a prisoner swap.

There’s also a long-term problem with making prisoner swaps or concessions, which is the fear or the risk that it incentivizes future arrests, just like this one. The more publicity that this case receives, and the more attention that we pay to the possibility of a prisoner swap, there’s a fear that that puts a target on the back of Americans traveling to Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela in the future, where the leaders have learned that arresting an American is a great way to coerce concessions.

There’s also a domestic political risk, which is that there can be real divisions among the American public about what kinds of victims deserve government assistance. And some people would say that Brittney Griner’s case is divisive because of the circumstances of her arrest, because it’s a drug charge.

Jonathan Guyer

How does Brittney Griner’s case fit into this spectrum of how the US is handling Americans detained, arrested, or convicted in Russia?

Danielle Gilbert

Brittney Griner was designated as wrongfully detained in May, and “wrongfully detained” is an official State Department designation, which means that the secretary of state has looked at her case and has determined that there’s something illegitimate about her arrest and her trial. Americans get arrested overseas all the time for breaking laws in other countries. And most of the time, the US government does not do anything to intervene in those cases. When a US citizen receives this designation, it means that the US government is committed to intervening on their behalf.

It also means that the case is taken out of the purview of the Bureau of Consular Affairs, which is essentially concerned with the welfare of Americans abroad, and transferred into the office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. That office serves as the chief diplomat on the world stage that thinks about wrongful detainees and hostages issues — and essentially serves as a US chief hostage negotiator.

One of the most striking things about the way that her case fits in with all of these other cases is that it has enormously raised the profile of this phenomenon. This is something that those of us who follow hostage and detainee issues have been worried about for quite some time. But the other dozens of hostages and wrongful detainees are not household names, and had not gotten the kind of attention that Brittney Griner’s case has now brought to all of these other cases — and the unjust treatment that American citizens are currently facing abroad.

Jonathan Guyer

What are historical examples or analogs to a potential swap like this in a fraught geopolitical moment?

Danielle Gilbert

One thing to remember in these cases is that we’re never talking about exchanging prisoners with our friends. So anytime that there’s one of these prisoner swaps, it’s with a US adversary.

The good news is that even when there have been geopolitical tensions between the United States and another country, that these deals are still able to go through. So sometimes these deals are quite unpopular. The most famous one might be Bowe Bergdahl, who was a US Army soldier who walked off his base, and was taken captive by the Haqqani Network and the Taliban, and was ultimately exchanged for five senior Taliban officials who were being held at Guantanamo. That’s probably one of the most famous cases of a prisoner swap in recent memory.

But there are many others that have broken through to the public attention. One is Alan Gross, who was wrongfully detained in Cuba, and was ultimately released as part of a prisoner exchange for three Cuban prisoners who were held in a US prison, at a moment when the United States was working on broader diplomatic negotiations that represented an opening between the US and Cuba.

The 2015 Iran deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was the Obama administration’s deal to lift sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits on their nuclear program, also included a prisoner swap. Jason Rezaian, a journalist for the Washington Post, had been the Tehran bureau chief; he was arrested in Iran and charged with espionage. He and his wife and several other prisoners were exchanged as part of the broader JCPOA deal.

Sometimes these are much larger geopolitical negotiations and not a direct one-for-one prisoner swap.

Jonathan Guyer

Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. You don’t have any inside information about that, but what might it look like, hypothetically, in terms of what you described as a high-stakes conversation?

Danielle Gilbert

There’s a phenomenal episode of the Foreign Policy magazine podcast, The Negotiators, with Mickey Bergman, who is the No. 2 guy at Ambassador Bill Richardson’s organization, the Richardson Center, that conducts a lot of these prisoner and hostage negotiations all around the world. In the interview, Mickey talks about what went down in a prisoner swap negotiation with an American who was imprisoned in Iran.

A hostage negotiation or a prisoner negotiation, in some ways, is not that different from any negotiation that people might have in their professional or personal lives; two people come to the table with different things that they want to get out of it with different sets of interests. The goal is to find where your interests align.

Both the Biden and the Putin administrations will want to look good for their own domestic audiences. They want to look strong on the international stage. The US is pretty clear. We have two Americans who are wrongfully detained: we want Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan home as soon as possible.

The Russians might have a long list of things that they’re interested in, that they might be communicating directly to the American government behind the scenes, even if they’re not saying those things out loud. That might be prisoners that they want released from US custody. It might be other diplomatic and economic concessions. And we can surmise that those might be the Russian interests, because that’s what other governments have negotiated in the past for the release of Americans held hostage abroad. That might be sanctions relief or debt relief. It might be diplomatic recognition, it might be an opportunity to get involved in something that they want to do internationally.

Jonathan Guyer

What can we expect going forward? What indicators will you be watching in Griner’s case?

Danielle Gilbert

Today was a very public day with lots of news. She was in the courtroom, she was sentenced, we have a statement from the White House. Going forward, there’s going to be a lot less that we see happen publicly.

Despite the fact that the Biden administration announced last week that it had previously put an offer on the table to the Russians, it’s not typical to announce the steps in a negotiation as they’re happening.

My hunch is that there will be a lot of outward quiet, and it will be basically a waiting game. Hopefully, now that the trial is over, and that she has been sentenced, the Russians will be ready to properly come to the negotiating table. And hopefully, they will have some compassion and let her and Paul Whelan come back to the United States as quickly as possible.

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