WASHINGTON — Immediately after a Moscow judge on Thursday handed down Brittney Griner’s nine-year sentence, 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 what is necessary and possible,” said Rev. Al Sharpton in a statement.
US officials and analysts had resigned themselves to a conviction for Ms. Griner, a basketball star who plays for a Russian team during the WNBA season. But the cold reality of her drug conviction came as a shock and renewed calls for Mr Biden to secure her release — even as critics were outraged that the offer to swap prisoners with Moscow is rewarding Russian hostage-taking.
The result is a painful dilemma for the Biden administration, which is trying to maintain a hard line against Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin over his war in Ukraine.
“There’s nothing good here,” said Andrea Schneider, an international conflict resolution expert at Cardozo School of Law. “Whatever Biden does, he will be criticized – either for giving too much or for not working hard enough.”
Kremlin officials had said a potential deal could not go through until her trial was completed, raising a glimmer of hope the verdict would open the door to an exchange. But analysts called that unlikely in the short term.
“I don’t think this will be resolved anytime soon,” said Jared Genser, a human rights lawyer who represents Americans detained by foreign governments. “I think the fact that Putin didn’t say yes right away means he looked at the US offer and said, ‘Well, that’s their first offer. I can get more than that.’”
That US offer, first made to Russia in June, was aimed at the release of Ms. Griner and Paul N. Whelan, a former Marine arrested in Moscow and convicted of espionage in 2020.
The Biden administration proposed to trade the two Americans for the notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year federal prison sentence for offering weapons to a Colombian rebel group that the United States then considered a terrorist organization.
The proposal has already reshaped US diplomacy towards Russia, which had been frozen at a high level since Putin’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine. A phone call about the matter on July 29 between State Secretary Antony J. Blinken and his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, was their first conversation since the start of the war. But it seemed to leave the Kremlin unmoved. The White House says Russia has made an undisclosed bad faith counter-offer that the United States does not take seriously.
What you need to know about the Brittney 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 negotiations publicly, although Russian media began linking Mr Bout’s case to Ms Griner’s case early this summer.
But the pressure is skewed. While Mr Putin has long sought the release of Mr Bout, perhaps out of loyalty to a man with deep ties to the Russian security state, the continued incarceration of the arms dealer costs Mr Putin little. In other words, time is in Mr Putin’s favor.
Mr Biden, on the other hand, is being squeezed from both sides.
On one side are Mrs. Griner’s supporters. Her wife, Cherelle Griner, has publicly urged Biden to make a deal with Putin as soon as possible. Those pleas were echoed by Mr Sharpton, Democratic activist groups, television pundits, professional athletes and social media celebrities. (Mr. Sharpton also called for Mr. Whelan’s release on Thursday.)
“How could she feel like America has her back?” That said NBA superstar LeBron James in mid-July. “I would feel like, ‘Do I even want to go back to America?'”
That was before Mr. Biden’s proposal to release Mr. Bout went public. Officials said they disclosed the offer, which was confirmed last week by a person aware of the talks, to increase pressure on Russia. But the revelation may also reflect a desire to show Ms. Griner’s financiers that Mr. Biden was not on his hands.
“We believe it is important for the American people to know how hard President Biden is working to get Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan home,” John F. Kirby, a White House national security spokesman, said at the time. “We think it’s important that their families know how hard we’re working on this.”
The fate of Brittney Griner in Russia
The American basketball player has been held in a Russian prison for months on charges of smuggling hash oil into the country.
After Ms Griner was sentenced on Thursday, Mr Biden renewed his commitment to “follow every avenue possible to get Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as quickly as possible.”
However, the White House would not say how Mr. Biden could achieve that goal. “I don’t think it would be helpful for Brittany or Paul if we talked more publicly about where we are in the negotiations and what the president would or would not be willing to do,” said Mr. Kirby.
But almost any additional offer would certainly amplify criticism from Mr Biden’s other flank — and the allegations that Mr Biden indulged in extortion by Mr Putin, a man he has called a war criminal.
“This is why dictatorships – like Venezuela, Iran, China, Russia – are taking Americans hostage, because they know they will get something for it,” Rep. Florida Republican Mike Waltz told Newsmax last week. “They know that eventually some administration will 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 the release of Mr. Bolt “would probably lead to more” Americans being arrested abroad. And former President Donald J. Trump, who during his term took pride in releasing Americans held abroad, vehemently rejected the proposed deal.
Mr Bout, he said, was “definitely one of the worst in the world, and he will get his freedom because a potentially spoiled person full of drugs enters Russia.” (Russian officials who stopped Ms. Griner at an airport near Moscow in mid-February found less than one gram of cannabis vape oil in her bags.)
Mr. Genser, the attorney for other incarcerated Americans, noted that Mr. Biden has an option other than increasing his offer. He could find new ways to make Mr Putin suffer.
“You have to drastically increase the cost for Vladimir Putin to hold them,” said Mr. genser. “It’s not just about giving Putin what he wants. It’s about lifting the pain for him at the same time.”
However, that is not an easy task. Biden government officials have spent months trying to figure out ways to hurt Putin enough to make him abandon his invasion of Ukraine. Like the freedom of Mrs. Griner and Mr. Whelan, that goal remains elusive.