February 10, 1962: In a Cold War, Hollywood-style trade on the Glienicke Bridge between Berlin and Potsdam, two men – an American and a Soviet – walked in opposite directions across what decades later would be known as the “Bridge of Spies.”
They were Francis Gary Powers, the American pilot of a spy plane shot down over the USSR, and Soviet KGB Colonel Rudolph Abel, who had served five years in the United States for espionage.
More than half a century later, Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, certainly knows the value of prisoner exchanges. In April, his administration freed former US Marine Trevor Reed, convicted of endangering a Russian police officer after a drunken brawl, in exchange for Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, convicted in the US of conspiracy of cocaine trafficking to the United States.
In relations with Russia, as with Iran and North Korea, American citizens who are not spies have been arrested and held as political “hostages”, bargaining chips to be exchanged against citizens that these countries want to recover.
In 2018, Russian citizen Maria Butina was arrested in the United States and charged with acting as an unregistered foreign agent for Russia. Five months later, former US Marine Paul Whelan, who holds American, British, Canadian and Irish nationality, was arrested in Moscow for espionage. He claims that an FSB agent, whom he believed to be a friend, placed a USB key on him containing confidential information.
Butina served her sentence and was released and deported to Russia in 2019; Whelan is still confined to a penal colony in a remote region of Russia. The United States officially declared him “wrongfully detained”. There was no trade and Russia says his detention is not political.
The latest case of an American classified by the United States as “wrongfully detained” in Russia is WNBA star Brittney Griner. The double Olympic gold medalist, detained since February in a Russian remand center outside Moscow, is accused of drug trafficking and faces 10 years in prison. Customs officials say they found vaping cartridges containing hashish oil in his luggage.
His arrest drew enormous attention in the United States. Sports figures, women’s rights groups, LGBT organizations, as well as Griner’s wife, Cherelle, have rallied to pressure the Biden administration to strike a deal with Moscow. The Biden administration says it is working hard to free her and Whelan.
President Joe Biden spoke by telephone with Griner’s wife, as well as Whelan’s family, and wrote Griner a letter which was delivered to him in Moscow. The United States’ top private hostage negotiator, former New Mexico governor and diplomat Bill Richardson, is expected to travel to Russia in the coming weeks to discuss the possible release of Griner and Whelan. Richardson was instrumental in the release of Trevor Reed.
But on Tuesday, Whelan’s family described in a statement how third-party representatives like Richardson can both “help and hinder an eventual resolution of an inmate’s case.”
These representatives “are unable to offer or accept the concessions that are central to the ongoing detention,” the Whelan family said in a statement to CNN, adding that “since they operate outside of any government, they may not be aware of the discussions that are already underway between the U.S. government and the nation taking the hostages.”
The calculation of the prisoner exchange
With his star quality, Griner would be a valuable asset if Putin wanted a prisoner swap, which Moscow has indicated could be a possibility. The Kremlin however insists that she is not a hostage, that the case is being handled strictly according to Russian criminal law.
Russian media coverage, however, paints a more nuanced picture. From the Kremlin – terse and “proper” statements from Russian officials. On Russian state-controlled TV – brief video of Griner being led into courtroom, guarded by armed police, handcuffed to courtroom security guard, forcing basketball star six feet nine inches to an uncomfortable hunch. Since only 0.25% of all criminal cases are acquittals, for Russian viewers the visual image is likely to create an impression of guilt.
Russian drug laws are stricter than US laws and are enforced against Russian citizens. But Griner is charged with large-scale drug transport, which carries a 10-year prison sentence, even though she was transporting just 0.702 grams of hash oil – less than 0.0248 ounces – which, according to her lawyers, was intended for personal use. Cannabis is illegal in Russia.
For Biden, approving a prisoner exchange presents a difficult diplomatic, political, and human calculus. Griner, a black and gay American, is tried for drug trafficking in a now hostile country. Russia has a law prohibiting the dissemination of “gay propaganda” and there is widespread hostility in Russian society towards homosexuals. Russian prisons and penal colonies are notorious for their harsh conditions.
Even the current confinement conditions are difficult for someone over six feet tall. Griner’s wife says Brittney is transported to court – a five-hour journey – in a “very, very, very small cage”. In a letter to Biden, Griner wrote, “I’m terrified to be here forever.”
Whelan has also complained to his family that the barracks in his correctional colony are unheated and that he is frequently woken up throughout the night.
And yet, hostage-taking experts warn that trading an arrested basketball star with a tiny amount of hash oil could result in the wrongful arrest of more Americans and their use as hostages for future exchanges.
If there was a prisoner swap for Griner – and, possibly, Whelan – who would Russia want back? Indications from Moscow indicate that it could be Viktor Bout, a notorious international arms trafficker, sentenced to 25 years in prison in the United States, nicknamed the “merchant of death” for having fueled civil wars in Africa and bloody conflicts in Latin America and the Middle East.
Bout, a former Soviet Air Force officer, is suspected of having had close ties to the Russian secret service. In 2002, in an interview I conducted with him at CNN’s Moscow bureau, he described himself simply as a “businessman.”
Under normal circumstances, prisoner swaps are sensitive and delicate matters, usually best negotiated behind the scenes. Brittney Griner’s case is anything but calm, and relations between Russia and the United States, amid Russia’s war against Ukraine, are extremely strained.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov denounced what he called “hype” around the case and criticized Biden’s letter to Griner, saying “this type of correspondence does not help not”.
Last week, Griner pleaded guilty to the drug trafficking charge, telling the judge, “But there was no intent. I didn’t mean to break the law.” This confession could help solve the case, say legal experts.
But this highly politicized trial is decided under the eyes of the cameras and public outcry, in the midst of a crisis in diplomatic relations.
Russian officials say any prisoner swaps would only take place after the verdict is announced. But this time there is no “bridge of spies”, and the United States and Russia are locked in a new cold war.