As the political heat mounts on the president, the American influence needed to free the pair is undermined by the adversarial relationship between Moscow and Washington, leaving them essentially political pawns caught in a larger geopolitical trap. Given the aftershocks of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the relentless US campaign to isolate and punish the Kremlin, there has perhaps never been a worse time to be an American imprisoned in Russia.
Griner was arrested in February at a Moscow airport a week before the invasion and after playing in Moscow during the WNBA offseason. Russian authorities claimed she had cannabis oil in her luggage and charged her with smuggling large quantities of a narcotic, an offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison. His trial resumed Thursday.
Whelan was arrested in 2018 for espionage, which he denied. He was found guilty and sentenced in June 2020 to 16 years in prison in a trial that US officials have denounced as unfair. He also questioned whether Biden’s White House had done all it could to free him.
Washington claims the two Americans were unjustly imprisoned.
The fate of individuals against American interests
In the United States, Griner’s fate, in particular, is viewed through a humanitarian lens. And for the loved ones of those in prison, almost any move to get them home would be seen as a small price to pay.
But the White House and State Department must also be wary of signaling to U.S. adversaries like Russia, Iran, China, or North Korea, or to criminal or terrorist groups, that Washington is open for business. for agreements to return imprisoned citizens. This would make all Americans deeply vulnerable when traveling abroad.
Biden’s headache over these issues is only getting worse. It’s politically problematic whenever a president seems unable to dictate terms to strongmen abroad. And given his alarming approval ratings, Biden can ill afford to manage what is essentially a foreign hostage crisis, providing an opening for his domestic political enemies.
The president’s political exposure has increased dramatically in recent days after the Griner camp increased the pressure, including with a letter to the president from the Phoenix Mercury star herself in which she wrote that she feared being indefinitely in prison in Russia. His wife, Cherelle, asked in a CNN interview whether the effort to free her matched American rhetoric.
Later, at a rally in Arizona hosted by Griner’s pro team and Democratic Rep. Greg Stanton, attendees expressed concern about his situation.
“I’m frustrated that my wife is not getting justice,” Cherelle Griner said.
In its rush to make amends with the Griner camp, the administration may have been most successful in aggravating the political hubbub it was trying to quell.
Both Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke by phone Wednesday with Cherelle Griner to assure her that they were pursuing all avenues to free his wife. And the president shared with her a response he wrote at the Phoenix Mercury Center. But his attention to Griner’s case immediately caused friction with Whelan’s family. The ex-Marine’s sister told CNN that while they don’t blame the Griner family for any attention, they do wonder why some families are sensitized and others aren’t.
“I was amazed this morning to hear about that call,” Elizabeth Whelan told CNN’s Erica Hill. “It made me wonder if we should push for a meeting with the president? What I would really like to see was a working process that really didn’t require that.”
Whelan said his brother wrote hundreds of letters, including to Biden, former President Donald Trump and members of Congress. While she said she believed the US government was doing everything it could to bring her brother home, her outreach to families fell short.
“My message to the White House is that other families with far fewer resources have been waiting for years and years to see action to bring their loved ones home. What we need to see is something a little fairer,” she said.
Griner and Whelan aren’t the only Americans imprisoned overseas. A coalition of loved ones involved in the “Bring Our Families Home” campaign also called on the president to become more personally involved in their affairs. Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a meeting with the families and assured them that the administration was doing all it could. On Tuesday, State Department spokesman Ned Price spoke of the extreme sensitivity of many cases while saying he understood the families’ impulse to garner as much publicity as possible.
“We don’t, ourselves, don’t want to do anything, don’t want to say anything that can jeopardize” the cases of Americans imprisoned overseas, Price said. “We had conversations with families about how they too could avoid doing anything that would make it more difficult for their loved ones to be released.”
Bunny Drueke, the mother of one of the men, told CNN’s Erin Burnett on Wednesday that she was pleased with the administration’s response.
“I haven’t heard from President Biden or the White House but I didn’t expect it; it’s not really their responsibility,” she said, adding that she was happy with the Blinken’s role in this affair, and pointing out that his son and his compatriot was different from Griner since they were prisoners of war.
Delicate diplomatic maneuvers
The situation of Americans detained by enemies of the United States is particularly difficult. While Washington might want to isolate the cases of individuals from complex geopolitical disputes, opposing governments are bound to try to use them for their own ends.
That’s why prisoners like Griner have so few options — trapped in a country whose ruler has shown few qualms about using innocent civilians as servants.
“Really, what happened to Brittney Griner – she was kidnapped and she’s being held now in exchange for something Putin wants,” Steve Hall, the former CIA operations chief in Russia, said last week.
Hall pointed out how US negotiations for the release of prisoners overseas would be viewed by the country’s enemies. “You’re going to instigate this more, not just by Russia – North Korea is a perfect example of that. These wacky states, these authoritarian states…know that all they have to do is catch an American – let this be a businessman, a tourist, a professional, like Griner – and then they can negotiate whatever they want,” said Hall, a CNN national security analyst.
But Biden would face significant resistance from leaders in the criminal justice hierarchy if he offered Bout in a prisoner swap. It would equate, on the one hand, the integrity of a US prosecution – which saw Bout imprisoned for 25 years for conspiring to kill Americans, acquiring and exporting anti-aircraft missiles and providing material support to an organization terrorist – to a Russian criminal procedure that Washington considers a sham.
Such legal and geopolitical considerations pale for Americans whose loved ones are imprisoned in often primitive and unsanitary conditions thousands of miles from home. These cases end up on the desks of presidents because they are so intractable and often involve uncomfortable trade-offs between humanitarian considerations and national interests.
And every choice a president makes has significant downsides.