Brittney Griner’s ruling puts renewed pressure on President Biden

WASHINGTON — Immediately after a Moscow judge handed down Brittney Griner’s nine-year sentence on Thursday, calls grew 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,” Rev. Al Sharpton said in a statement.

US officials and analysts had settled with a guilty verdict for Ms. Griner, a basketball star playing for a Russian team during the WNBA offseason. But the cold reality of her verdict on a drug charge came as a shock and renewed calls for Mr. Biden to secure her release – even as critics fumed that the offer to swap prisoners with Moscow rewards Russian hostage-taking.

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

“There’s nothing good here,” said Andrea Schneider, an expert in international conflict resolution at the Cardozo School of Law. “No matter what Biden does, he will be criticized – either that we give too much or that we don’t work hard enough.”

Kremlin officials had said a potential deal could not be finalized until their trial was complete, creating a glimmer of hope that the ruling could open the door for an exchange. But analysts thought that was unlikely.

“I don’t think this will be resolved quickly,” said Jared Genser, a human rights attorney representing Americans held by foreign governments. “I think the fact that Putin didn’t immediately say yes means he looked at the US offer and said, ‘Well, that’s their first offer. I can get more than that.’”

That US bid, first made to Russia in June, called for 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 trading the two Americans for notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is in the middle of a 25-year federal prison term for offering to sell arms to a Colombian rebel group, which the United States then considered a terrorist organization .

The proposal has already reshaped US diplomacy towards Russia, which has been frozen at high levels since Putin’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine. 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 beginning of the war. But it seemed to leave the Kremlin unperturbed. The White House says Russia has made an unspecified “evil” counteroffer that the United States is not taking seriously.

Lavrov told reporters on Friday that the two nations would continue to discuss the issue through established channels. He reiterated the Kremlin’s demand that the United States not publicly discuss the negotiations, although Russian media began linking Mr. Bout’s case to Ms. Griner’s earlier this summer.

But the pressure is one-sided. 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 detention is costing Mr Putin little. In other words, the time is for Mr. Putin.

Mr. Biden, on the other hand, sees himself under pressure from two sides.

On the one hand there are the supporters of Mrs. Griner. Your wife, Cherelle Griner, has publicly asked Mr Biden to strike a deal with Mr Putin as soon as possible. These pleas have been repeated on social media by Mr. Sharpton, Democratic activist groups, television pundits, professional athletes and celebrities. (Mr Sharpton also called for Mr Whelan’s release on Thursday.)

“How could she feel like America was behind her?” NBA superstar LeBron James said in mid-July. “I would 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 with knowledge of the talks, to increase pressure on Russia. But the revelation may also have reflected a desire to show Ms Griner’s supporters 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,” 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.”

After Ms Griner was sentenced on Thursday, Mr Biden renewed his pledge to “use every means possible to get Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible”.

However, the White House declined to say how Mr. Biden might achieve that goal. “I don’t think it would help Brittany or Paul if we spoke more publicly about where we are in the talks and what the President might or might not be willing to do,” Mr Kirby said.

But almost any additional offer would certainly fuel criticism from Mr. Biden’s other flank — and allegations 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 — are holding Americans hostage because they know they’re going to get something in return,” Florida Republican Rep. Mike Waltz told Newsmax last week. “They know that at some point an administration will pay. And that just puts a target on the back of every American out there.”

Mike Pompeo, the former Secretary of State, echoed the criticism in an interview with Fox News last week, saying Mr. Bout’s release would “probably result in more” Americans being arrested abroad. And former President Donald J. Trump, who in office prided himself on freeing Americans imprisoned abroad, slammed the proposed deal with harsh words.

Mr. Bout, he said, is “absolutely one of the worst in the world, and he will get his freedom because a potentially spoiled person is going to Russia laden with drugs.” (Russian officials who met Ms. Griner at a nearby airport in mid-February of Moscow found less than a gram of cannabis vape oil in their bags.)

Mr. Genser, the attorney for other incarcerated Americans, noted that Mr. Biden has an option beyond increasing his bid. He could be looking for new ways to make Mr. Putin suffer.

“They must dramatically increase the cost to Vladimir Putin of their imprisonment,” Mr Genser said. “It’s not just about giving Putin what he wants. It’s about increasing the pain for him at the same time.”

However, this is not an easy task. Officials in the Biden administration have spent months trying to figure out ways to inflict enough pain on Mr. Putin to get him to halt his invasion of Ukraine. Like the freedom of Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan, this goal remains unattainable.