Biden’s one-for-one swop for Brittney Griner stirs unease and elation

Brittney Griner was swopped for Viktor Bout, the so-called merchant of death, whom Russia has been working for years to free. PHOTOS: AFP

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden’s move to exchange a notorious arms dealer for basketball star Brittney Griner, without a deal for former US Marine Paul Whelan, was celebrated by much of his party while opening him to criticism the deal was lopsided and risks detentions of more Americans abroad.

Mr Biden announced the deal on Thursday, after Griner was swopped for Viktor Bout, the so-called merchant of death, whom Russia had been working for years to free.

Mr Kevin McCarthy, who is in line to become Speaker of the House of Representatives in January, said trading Bout without getting Whelan is an “unconscionable” move and a “a gift to (Russian President) Vladimir Putin”.

The swop may not be such a clear-cut win for Mr Putin, according to Mr Thomas Warrick, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think-tank. He said the irony is “they don’t really want Viktor Bout back”.

Moscow could place Bout in internal exile and try “to keep him on ice so that he doesn’t become a further embarrassment to the Putin government for trying to get back into the arms sales business”, Mr Warrick said.

Regardless of Bout or Griner’s relative importance, the optics were clear for Mr Biden. He brought home a high-profile detainee, one whose imprisonment was widely seen as bogus. Griner’s case was closely watched by civil rights leaders and other key constituencies. Many Democrats lauded the deal, as did Reverend Al Sharpton and the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People.

‘Political pawns’

Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Mr Biden’s swop lends validation to what the US has called a political detention of Griner, warning that an uneven deal could spur incentives for other regimes to snag Americans as bargaining chips.

“This should be a moment of deep reflection for the United States government to recognise we have a serious problem with hostage-taking of Americans,” Mr Menendez said. “We cannot ignore that releasing Bout back into the world is a deeply disturbing decision.”

Republicans raised similar concerns.

Representative Michael McCaul, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s top GOP member, said trading Bout for Griner “will only embolden Vladimir Putin to continue his evil practice of taking innocent Americans hostage for use as political pawns”.

The Biden administration toiled for months to secure Griner’s release, eventually going so far as to say publicly they had made an offer for the return of Griner and Whelan, who is serving a 16-year sentence in Russia on spying charges that he denies.

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It was not clear exactly how the deal came together and whether the US and Russia are still negotiating over Whelan or other prisoners.

Bout and Griner were traded in Abu Dhabi. One official, who asked not to be identified discussing private deliberations, said the United Arab Emirates helped kick-start mediation after Emirati leader Mohammed bin Zayed visited Mr Putin in St Petersburg in October.

One or none

A mural featuring WNBA's Brittney Griner in Arizona. The US swopped her for an arms dealer in a prisoner exchange with Russia. PHOTO: REUTERS

The swop announced on Thursday leaves uncertain Whelan’s fate, but administration officials defended it and said their choice was to swop Bout for Griner, or make no deal at all.

“This was not a choice of which American to bring home. The choice was one, or none,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday.

He said Whelan’s case is distinct. “Russia has continued to see Paul’s case through the lens of false espionage charges, and they are treating him differently.”

That language suggests that “the Russians have somebody in mind that they want back” and will seek a quid pro quo for Whelan’s release, said Mr Warrick, who served at the State Department and Department of Homeland Security. BLOOMBERG

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