WASHINGTON — Immediately after sentenced Brittney Griner to nine years in prison on Thursday, a Moscow judge called on President Biden to find a way to bring her home.
“We call on President Biden and the U.S. government to redouble our efforts to do whatever is necessary and possible,” Pastor Al Sharpton said in a statement.
U.S. officials and analysts have resigned from the guilty verdict of Ms. Greener, a basketball star who played for a Russian team during the WNBA offseason. But the grim reality of her sentence on drug charges is appalling and has renewed calls on Mr Biden to secure her release – despite critics angered by the proposal to exchange prisoners with Moscow to reward Russia for taking hostages.
The result is a painful predicament for the Biden administration as it tries to take a hard line against Russian President Vladimir V. Putin in the Ukraine war.
“There’s nothing good here,” said Andrea Schneider, an expert on 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 have said any potential deal cannot proceed until her trial is complete, offering a glimmer of hope that the verdict could open the door to a swap. But analysts say that is unlikely in the short term.
“I don’t think this will be resolved anytime soon,” said Jared Genser, a human rights lawyer representing Americans held by foreign governments. “I think the fact that Putin didn’t say yes right away means he saw the American offer and said, ‘Well, this is their first offer. I can get more than that.'”
The U.S. proposal, first submitted to Russia in June, seeks to free Ms. Griner and Paul N. Whelan, a former Marine who was arrested in Moscow and convicted of spying in 2020.
The Biden administration is proposing to trade the two Americans for Victor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer who was serving a 25-year federal prison sentence for selling weapons to a Colombian insurgent group, which the United States at the time considers a terrorist organization.
The proposal has reshaped U.S. diplomacy toward Russia, which has been frozen at the top since Mr. Putin’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. On July 29, Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken and his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, had a phone call on the matter, their first conversation since the war began. But that seems to have left the Kremlin unmoved. The White House said Russia had made an unspecified “malicious” counteroffer that the United States did not take seriously.
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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 U.S. refrain from discussing the talks publicly, even as Russian media began linking Mr. Bout’s case to Ms. Greener’s earlier this summer.
But the pressure is unbalanced. While Mr Putin has long sought the release of Mr Boot, perhaps out of loyalty to a man close to Russia’s security state, the continued imprisonment of the arms dealer has done little to Mr Putin. In other words, time is in Putin’s favor.
Mr Biden, on the other hand, finds himself squeezed in two ways.
On the one hand are supporters of Ms Greener. Her wife, Cherelle Griner, has publicly pleaded with Mr. Biden to reach a deal with Mr. Putin as soon as possible. The requests were echoed by Mr. Sharpton, Democratic activist groups, television pundits, professional athletes and social media personalities. (Mr Sharpton also called for Mr Whelan’s release on Thursday.)
“How could she feel that America is supporting her?” NBA superstar LeBron James said in mid-July. “I would think, ‘Do I still want to go back to America?'”
That was before Mr. Biden’s proposal to free Mr. Boot was made public. Officials said they disclosed the proposal, which was confirmed last week by a person familiar with the matter, to increase pressure on Russia. But the revelation may also reflect a desire to show Ms Greener’s supporters that Mr Biden isn’t sitting on his hands.
“We believe it is very important for the American people to understand President Biden’s efforts to bring Britney Greener and Paul Whelan home,” White House national security spokesman John F. Kirby said at the time. Think it’s important to let their families know how hard we’ve worked on this.”
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The American basketball star is serving months in a Russian prison on charges of smuggling cannabis oil into Russia.
After Ms Greener was sentenced on Thursday, Mr Biden repeated his pledge to “seek all possible avenues to bring Britney and Paul Whelan home as quickly as possible”.
However, the White House would not say how Mr Biden would achieve that. “I don’t think it’s helpful to Brittany or Paul for us to be more open about where we’re going in the negotiations and what the president may or may not be willing to do,” Mr Kirby said.
But almost any additional proposal is sure to amplify criticism on the other side of Mr. Biden — and accuse Mr. Biden of succumbing to blackmail by Mr. Putin, who he calls a war criminal.
“That’s why authoritarian regimes — like Venezuela, Iran, China, Russia — hold Americans hostage because they know they’re going to get something for it,” Rep. Mike Waltz, Republican of Florida, told Newsmax last week. . “They know that in the end some government will pay. It just puts the target on the backs of every American.”
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responded to the criticism in a Fox News interview last week, saying the release of Mr. Boot “could lead to more” arrests of Americans abroad. Former President Donald J. Trump, who prided himself on releasing detained Americans abroad while in office, rudely attacked the proposed deal.
He said Mr Boot was “absolutely one of the worst people in the world, and he will be free because a potentially spoiled man came into Russia with drugs.” (Detained at an airport in the Moscow region in mid-February Russian officials for Ms. Griner found less than a gram of cannabis oil in her bag.)
Mr. Genser, a lawyer for other detained Americans, noted that Mr. Biden has options other than raising his offer. He can find new ways to make Mr Putin suffer.
“You need to dramatically increase the cost of Vladimir Putin’s detention of them,” Mr Genser said. “It’s not just about giving Putin what he wants. It’s about increasing his pain at the same time.”
However, this is no easy task. Biden administration officials have spent months trying to figure out how to make Mr. Putin suffer enough to stop him from invading Ukraine. Like the freedoms of Ms Griner and Mr Whelan, that goal remains elusive.