Sports · August 6, 2022

Brittney Griner’s ruling renews pressure on President Biden

WASHINGTON – Immediately after a Moscow judge handed down Brittney Griner’s nine-year prison sentence on Thursday, President Biden’s demands grew stronger to find a way to bring her home.

“We call on President Biden and the US government to redouble their efforts to do whatever 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’s off-season. But the cold reality of his drug conviction came as a shock and he renewed appeals to Mr. Biden for his release, even as critics were furious that the offer to exchange prisoners with Moscow would reward him for taking. Russian hostages.

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

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

Kremlin officials had said that any potential deal could not proceed before his trial was completed, creating a glimmer of hope that the verdict could open the door to an exchange. But analysts called it unlikely any time 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 that he looked at the US offer and said, ‘Well, this is their first offer. I can achieve more. ‘”

That US offer, 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 has proposed to exchange the two Americans for notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is in the middle of a 25-year federal prison sentence for offering to sell weapons to a Colombian insurgent group that the United States they considered a terrorist organization.

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

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

But the pressure is unbalanced. 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 continued imprisonment of the arms dealer costs little to Mr. Putin. Time, in other words, is in Putin’s favor.

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

On the one hand, there are Mrs. Griner’s supporters. His wife, Cherelle Griner, publicly asked Mr. Biden to conclude a deal with Mr. Putin as soon as possible. These requests were echoed by Mr. Sharpton, Democratic activist groups, TV pundits, professional athletes and social media celebrities. (Mr. Sharpton also requested Mr. Whelan’s release on Thursday.)

“How can she feel like America has her back?” NBA superstar LeBron James said in mid-July. “I’d feel like, ‘Would I even want to go back to America?'”

That was before Mr. Biden’s proposal to free Mr. Bout went 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’s supporters that Mr. Biden wasn’t sitting with her 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,” said John F. Kirby, a White House national security spokesman at the time. “We think it’s important that their families know how hard we are working on it.”

After Ms. Griner was sentenced on Thursday, Mr. Biden renewed his commitment to “pursue every possible avenue to get Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”

However, the White House would not say how Mr. Biden could achieve that goal. “I don’t think it would help Brittney 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,” Kirby said.

But almost any additional offers would certainly amplify criticism from Mr. Biden’s other side – and accusations that Mr. Biden would bow to extortion by Mr. Putin, a man he called a war criminal.

“This is why dictatorships – such as Venezuela, Iran, China, Russia – are taking Americans hostage, because they know they will get something for it,” Florida Republican Rep Mike Waltz told Newsmax last week. “They know that eventually some administration will pay. And that just puts one target on every American’s back out there. “

Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state, echoed the criticism in an interview with Fox News last week, saying that releasing Mr. Bout would “likely lead to the arrest of more” Americans abroad. And former President Donald J. Trump, who was proud when he was in office to have freed Americans detained abroad, criticized the proposed deal in crude terms.

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

Mr. Genser, the attorney for other American inmates, noted that Mr. Biden has an option beyond increasing his offer. He may be looking for new ways to make Putin suffer.

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

It is not an easy task, however. Biden administration officials have spent months trying to devise ways to inflict enough pain on Mr. Putin to stop his invasion of Ukraine. Like Mrs. Griner’s and Mr. Whelan’s freedom, that goal also remains elusive.