WASHINGTON — Soon after a Moscow judge sentenced Brittany Griner to nine years in prison on Thursday, calls intensified for President Biden to find a way to bring her home.
“We call on President Biden and the United States government to redouble our efforts to do whatever is necessary and possible,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said in a statement.
US officials and analysts were resigned to the guilty verdict of Griner, a basketball star who plays for a Russian team during the WNBA off-season. But the cold reality of his sentence on the drug charge was a blow and renewed calls for Mr Biden to secure his release – even as critics said with Moscow holding prisoners Offering to swap rewards Russian hostage taking.
The result is a painful question for the Biden administration as it tries to maintain a tough line against Russian President Vladimir V. Putin over its war in Ukraine.
“Nothing is good here,” said Andrea Schneider, a specialist in international conflict resolution at the Cardozo School of Law. “No matter what Biden does, he’s going to be criticized – either we’re giving too much or we’re not working hard enough.”
Kremlin officials had said no possible deal could go ahead before the completion of his trial, raising a glimmer of hope that the verdict could open the door to an exchange. But analysts said that’s not likely anytime soon.
“I don’t think it’s going to be resolved quickly,” said Jared Jenser, a human rights lawyer who represents Americans held 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, this is his first offer. I can get more than that.'”
That US proposal, which was first presented to Russia in June, prompted Ms. Griner and Paul N. Whelan, a former Marine arrested in Moscow and convicted of espionage in 2020.
The Biden administration proposed trading two Americans for infamous Russian arms dealer Victor Bout, who is in the midst of a 25-year federal prison sentence for offering to sell arms to a Colombian rebel group, which the United States then sanctioned. was considered a terrorist organization.
The resolution has already reshaped US diplomacy towards Russia, which had been frozen at a senior level since Mr Putin’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine. On 29 July, Foreign Minister Antony J. A phone call about the matter between Blinken and his Russian counterpart, Sergei V. Lavrov, was his first conversation since the war broke out. But it appeared that the Kremlin got no momentum. The White House says Russia has made an unspecified “bad faith” retaliatory proposal that the United States is not taking seriously.
What’s to know about the Brittany Griner case?
On Friday, Mr. Lavrov told reporters that the two countries would continue to discuss the issue through established channels. He reiterated the Kremlin’s insistence that the United States not discuss the talks publicly, although Russian media outlets began linking Mr Bout’s case to Ms Griner’s case earlier this summer.
But the pressure is one-sided. While Mr Putin has long called for Mr Bout’s release, perhaps because of his loyalty to a man with deep ties to Russia’s security state, the arms dealer’s continued imprisonment has cost Mr Putin less. Time, in other words, is on Mr. Putin’s side.
Mr Biden, on the other hand, finds himself squeezed from both sides.
On one hand are Ms Griner’s supporters. His wife, Cherrell Griner, has made a public request for Biden to strike a deal with Mr Putin as soon as possible. Those pleas have been echoed by Mr Sharpton, Democratic activist groups, television pundits, pro athletes and celebrities on social media. (Mr Sharpton also called for Mr Whelan’s release on Thursday.)
“How could she feel America had her back?” NBA superstar LeBron James said in mid-July. “I must be feeling like, ‘Do I want to go back to America too?
This was before Mr Biden’s proposal to free Mr Bout became public. Officials said they disclosed the offer, which was confirmed last week by a person briefing on 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 their hands.
“We believe it is important for the American people to know how hard President Biden is working to get Brittany 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 are working on this.”
Brittany Griner’s plight in Russia
The American basketball star has spent months in a Russian prison on charges of smuggling hashish oil into the country.
After Ms Griner was sentenced on Thursday, Mr Biden renewed his commitment to “make every effort to get Britney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible”.
However, the White House would not specify how Mr Biden might achieve that goal. “I don’t think it would be helpful for Brittany or Paul to talk more publicly about where we are in talks and what the president may or may not be willing to do,” Kirby said.
But almost any additional offer would be sure to increase criticism from the other side of Mr Biden – and allegations that Mr Biden was leaning on extortion by Mr Putin, a man he has called a war criminal.
“This is why dictatorships – like Venezuela, Iran, China, Russia – take Americans hostage because they know they will get something for it,” Republican Representative Mike Waltz of Florida told Newsmax last week. “They know that eventually some administration will pay. And it just puts a target on the back of every American out there. ,
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed the criticism in a Fox News interview last week, saying that freeing Mr Bout would “more likely” lead to Americans being arrested overseas. and former President Donald J. Trump, who prided himself on freeing Americans detained abroad while in office, dismissed the proposed deal in crude terms.
Mr Bout, he said, was “absolutely one of the worst people in the world, and he is being given his freedom as a potentially bad person gets loaded up with drugs in Russia.” (Russian officials who detained Ms Griner at a Moscow region airport in mid-February found less than a gram of cannabis oil in her bag.)
Mr Genser, a lawyer for the other detained Americans, said Mr Biden has a choice but to extend his offer. He could find new ways to victimize Mr. Putin.
“You need to dramatically increase the cost of detaining Vladimir Putin,” Genser said. “It’s not just about giving Putin what he wants. It’s about simultaneously magnifying the pain for him.”
However it is not an easy task. Biden administration officials have spent months trying to devise ways on Mr Putin to take enough pains to stop his invasion of Ukraine. Like Ms. Griner’s and Mr. Whelan’s independence, that goal too remains elusive.