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Brittney Griner’s sentence renews pressure on President Biden

Written by Javed Iqbal

WASHINGTON – Immediately after a Moscow judge handed down Brittney Grinners nine-year prison sentence on Thursday, the calls grew louder for President Biden to find a way to bring her home.

“We call on President Biden and the United States government to redouble their efforts to do whatever is necessary and possible,” the Reverend Al Sharpton said in a statement.

US officials and analysts had been drawn back to a guilty verdict for Ms. Griner, a basketball star who plays for a Russian team in the WNBA off-season. But the cold reality of her conviction on a drug charge was a shock and renewed calls for Mr. Biden to secure her release — even as critics charged that prisoner-swap offers with Moscow reward Russian hostage-taking.

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

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

Kremlin officials had said any potential deal could not proceed until her trial was completed, raising a glimmer of hope that the verdict could open the door to an exchange. But analysts called it unlikely soon.

“I don’t think this is going to be resolved quickly,” said Jared Genser, a human rights lawyer who represents Americans held by foreign governments. “I think the fact that Putin hasn’t said yes right away means he’s looked at the American offer and said, ‘Well, that’s their first offer. I can get more than that.’

The US offer, first presented to Russia in June, sought the release of Ms. Laughing and Paul N. Whelana former marine arrested in Moscow and convicted of espionage in 2020.

The Biden administration proposed to exchange the two Americans for the infamous ones Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is midway through a 25-year federal prison sentence for offering to sell weapons to a Colombian rebel group that the United States then considered a terrorist organization.

The proposal has already reshaped American diplomacy toward Russia, which had been frozen at high levels since Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24. A July 29 phone call on the matter between Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, was their first conversation since the war began. But it seemed to leave the Kremlin untouched. The White House says Russia has made an unspecified “bad faith” counteroffer that the United States is not taking seriously.

On Friday, Mr. Lavrov told reporters that the two nations would continue to discuss the issue through established channels. He reiterated the Kremlin’s insistence that the United States not discuss the talks publicly, even as Russian media began linking Mr. Bout’s case to Ms. Griner’s in early summer.

But the pressure is skewed. 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 arms dealer’s continued imprisonment is costing Mr Putin little. In other words, time is in Mr. Putin’s favor.

Mr. Biden, on the other hand, is being pressured from two sides.

On one side are Ms. Griner’s supporters. Her wife, Cherelle Griner, has made public pleas for Mr 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, professional athletes and social media celebrities. (Mr Sharpton on Thursday also called for Mr Whelan’s release.)

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

That 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 briefed on the talks, to increase pressure on Russia. But the disclosure may also have reflected a desire to show Ms. Griner’s backers that Mr. Biden was not sitting on his 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. said then. “We think it’s important for their families to know how hard we’re working on this.”

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

However, the White House will not say how Mr. Biden can achieve this goal. “I don’t think it would be helpful for Brittney or Paul for us to talk more publicly about where we are in the negotiations and what the president may or may not be willing to do,” Mr. Kirby.

But almost any further offer would be sure to heighten criticism from Mr Biden’s other flank – and accusations that Mr Biden was bowing to blackmail from Mr Putin, a man he has called a war criminal.

“That’s why dictatorships — like Venezuela, Iran, China, Russia — take Americans hostage because they know they’ll get something for it,” said Rep. Florida Republican Mike Waltz told Newsmax last week. “They know some administration is going to pay. And this just puts a target on the back of every American out there.”

Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state, echoed the criticism in a Fox News interview last week, saying freeing Mr. Bout “will likely lead to more” Americans being arrested overseas. And former President Donald J. Trump, who in office prided himself on freeing Americans detained overseas, slammed the proposed deal in blunt terms.

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

Mr. Genser, the lawyer for other detained Americans, noted that Mr. Biden has an option beyond raising his offer. He could seek new ways to make Mr. Putin suffer.

“You have to dramatically increase the cost to Vladimir Putin of holding them back,” Mr Genser said. “It’s not just about giving Putin what he wants. It’s about raising the pain for him at the same time.”

However, it is not an easy task. Biden administration officials have spent months devising ways to inflict enough pain on Mr. Putin to get him to halt his invasion of Ukraine. Like Ms. Griners and Mr. Whelan’s freedom, this goal also remains elusive.

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Javed Iqbal

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