Brittney Griner: Inside the logistical chess match of a Russian prisoner exchange

·12 min read

The scene looked like it was stolen from a Hollywood script.

On one end of a Turkish airport tarmac sat a Russian federal security plane. On the other was a private jet owned by a U.S. government contractor. Both had landed in secrecy within minutes of each other on April 27 to conduct a high-value prisoner exchange on neutral soil.

Trevor Reed, an American citizen and Marine veteran, was sentenced to nine years in prison in July 2020 after he allegedly endangered the “life and health” of Russian police officers in a drunken altercation. U.S. officials declared those charges baseless and negotiated a deal to secure Reed’s freedom in exchange for convicted drug-smuggling Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko.

After Turkish authorities confirmed the presence of both prisoners set to be traded, they ordered both planes to open their doors. Reed and Yaroshenko then disembarked, escorted by U.S. and Russian intelligence officials. Neither man so much as acknowledged the other as they crossed paths on the way to the opposite aircraft.

The details of the Reed-Yaroshenko exchange remain relevant four months later because they provide a window into what a prisoner swap involving Brittney Griner might look like. Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to favor imitating the grandiose Cold War-era exchanges of captured spies that took place on the famed Glienicke Bridge connecting Berlin and Potsdam.

Danielle Gilbert, a Dartmouth University foreign policy fellow and hostage diplomacy expert, told Yahoo Sports her “hunch is that a Brittney Griner trade would follow the same pattern.” Gilbert pointed out that Russia’s assault on Ukraine had already begun when the Reed swap occurred and that the narrow lines of communication between Moscow and Washington likely remain unchanged.

“This is now an established working process,” Gilbert said. “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they drew from it again.”

Paul J. Springer, a senior fellow at the Foreign Police Research Institute and an authority on prisoner exchanges, agreed that if an exchange occurs, it again will be “you march yours across and we march ours across at the same time.” The only potential difference he anticipates would be the location. He’s not certain that Russia would agree to hold the exchange in a NATO nation like Turkey again.

Griner is serving a nine-year prison sentence after a Russian judge found her guilty of drug possession and drug smuggling charges on Aug. 4. President Biden called the sentence a reminder that “Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney” and pledged that his administration “would continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue” to bring the WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist home safely.

If the past six months have proven anything, it’s that bringing Griner home quickly is no easy feat. It’s a diplomatic dance complicated by the U.S.’s deteriorating relationship with Russia, the Kremlin’s lopsided asking price for Griner and mounting domestic pressure on President Biden that is only adding to Russia’s leverage.

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is escorted from a court room ater a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022. A judge in Russia has convicted American basketball star Brittney Griner of drug possession and smuggling and sentenced her to nine years in prison. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Brittney Griner is escorted from a courtroom after a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia. A judge in Russia has convicted the American basketball star of drug possession and smuggling and sentenced her to nine years in prison. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

How prisoner exchange negotiations work

For most American citizens arrested abroad, there’s no sidestepping the foreign legal process. The State Department explores a potential diplomatic solution only if Secretary of State Antony Blinken reviews an individual’s case and finds “credible information that they are being detained unlawfully or wrongfully.”

A law passed by Congress in 2020 provided Blinken broad latitude to deploy that designation. It established 11 criteria for wrongful detention, from “credible information indicating innocence,” to inhumane prison conditions, to evidence that an individual is being detained “to influence U.S. government policy or to secure economic or political concessions.”

Responsibility for an American deemed to be wrongfully detained abroad automatically shifts from the State Department’s consular affairs bureau to the office of the special envoy for hostage affairs. As the U.S. government’s top hostage negotiator, Roger Carstens leads efforts to formulate a bargaining strategy, to engage with adversaries and to keep family members informed of his progress.

Griner’s family has also enlisted the help of a silver-tongued diplomat with a track record of success in parts of the world where others refuse to negotiate. Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson has engaged directly with hostile governments anywhere from North Korea, to Iraq, to Cuba, to Myanmar and has proven as adept at retrieving American captives as the most skilled special ops team.

“When we get involved, we try to move and isolate the issue from the policy and political and into the humanitarian realm,” Richardson Center vice president Mickey Bergman told Yahoo Sports earlier this year. “We do not work for the U.S. government, but we inform them of our efforts and coordinate with them, when it is helpful for the release.”

As domestic pressure to free Griner escalated last month, the Biden administration tried to show that it wasn’t sitting idly. In an explosive July 27 news conference, Blinken revealed that the U.S. had “put a substantial proposal on the table” aimed at bringing Griner and fellow jailed American Paul Whelan home from Russia. Subsequent reports suggested the offer was a 2-for-1 trade for notorious Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year sentence for conspiring to kill Americans and to sell weapons to terrorists.

To first endorse a prisoner exchange and then authorize the release of one so infamous are not decisions the Biden administration would have made lightly, former State Department foreign services officer David Salvo told Yahoo Sports. In previous wrongful detention cases, Salvo recalls spirited interagency debate over whether a high-visibility prisoner exchange might incentivize other rogue nations to seize more Americans as potential trade bait.

“There are a lot of government agencies that would be involved in the discussion,” Salvo said. “There are always disagreements, but the goal is to try to reach a consensus and make a unanimous recommendation.”

In an attempt to cultivate the perception that Griner was receiving a fair trial and that their efforts to hold her were legitimate, Russian officials insisted publicly for weeks they wouldn’t entertain a prisoner exchange until she was tried and sentenced. Not until the morning after Griner’s drug trial concluded did Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov tell reporters that the Kremlin was “ready to discuss this issue.”

With prisoner swap negotiations apparently underway, experts say that the U.S. and Russia must actually make two compromises to strike a deal. Recent history shows that reaching an agreement on the logistics of an exchange will require just as much haggling as striking a deal on which prisoners to trade or what political concessions must be made.

US ex-marine Trevor Reed, charged with attacking police, stands inside a defendants' cage during his verdict hearing at Moscow's Golovinsky district court on July 30, 2020. (Photo by Dimitar DILKOFF / AFP) (Photo by DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images)
Trevor Reed, charged with attacking police, stands inside a defendant's cage during his verdict hearing at Moscow's Golovinsky district court on July 30, 2020. (DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images)

Logistics of a prisoner exchange

In April 2014, days before his 65th birthday, an American imprisoned in Cuba made a chilling promise. His health declining and his desire to live beginning to flicker, Alan Gross vowed that, one way or another, he would not turn 66 in his Havana jail cell.

Gross’ ultimatum spurred the Obama administration to sweep aside more than five decades of hostility and mistrust toward Cuba and sit down at the negotiating table. Within months, three U.S. government jets soared into the morning sky, each bound for a different airfield in Havana.

Aboard the plane meant to bring home Gross was his wife, his attorney, three congressmen and a national security official. They told hardly anyone about their mission or destination, not even coworkers or spouses.

Another plane’s purpose was to bring back an actual U.S. spy who had been in Cuban custody for nearly 20 years. The last plane carried three convicted Cuban spies beloved in their homeland for infiltrating Miami-area Cuban American groups and detecting potential threats to the island country.

After Gross wrapped his wife in an emotional embrace, he understandably was in a rush to fly home. After all, the U.S. government subcontractor had just spent more than five years behind bars in Cuba on spying charges that he and the State Department insisted were baseless.

The group was a mere 10 steps from the stairs to their plane when a Cuban official told Gross’ attorney Scott Gilbert, “You can’t leave yet.” The plane carrying the three newly freed Cuban spies was still minutes away from landing and the Cuban government needed to verify they were onboard.

“I don't think they believed we were going to double cross them,” Gilbert told Yahoo Sports, “but when you are in charge of something like this, you cannot afford any risk whatsoever of things going wrong.”

Stories like that illustrate the importance of synchronicity and secrecy to a successful prisoner exchange. If the details leak before the exchange occurs, one side might sense an opportunity to abruptly raise the stakes and demand more. Or if one side secures its prisoners before the other, that government might suddenly lack the incentive to follow through with its end of the deal.

“Making the exchange happen simultaneously is especially important to the success of a trade,” Danielle Gilbert said. “There's always a fear that, if the swap doesn't happen at the same time, one side can screw over the other.”

Some exchanges are so secretive that they catch even the prisoners involved by surprise. That’s what happened to Nizar Zakka in 2019 when Iran abruptly freed the Lebanese national and permanent U.S. resident four years into his 10-year sentence on espionage charges.

Early in his prison sentence, Zakka learned that optimism led to only disappointment. He was burned too many times when an Iranian judge displayed sympathy and gave him false hope or when diplomats failed to come through after promising his family they would help.

So when a family member of a fellow inmate told him that a credible Iranian website said that he might be released soon, Zakka insists he didn’t believe it. Nor did he celebrate when the head of the Iranian prison told him they were letting him go. Or when other inmates started clapping for him on his way out of prison. Or even when Iranian officials sought to propagandize his release by buying him a new suit and other gifts and parading him in front of TV cameras.

“I was worried it was another game,” he told Yahoo Sports. “I thought nothing was going to happen.”

It wasn’t until his plane reached Turkish airspace that Zakka finally exhaled … temporarily.

“Let’s go check the luggage,” he told the Lebanese official seated next to him. “We need to make sure they didn’t plant a bomb.”

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 20: Alan Gross, a guest of the First Lady Michelle Obama, lower left, is recognized in the Capitol's House chamber during President Barack Obama's State of the Union address, January 20, 2015. Gross was imprisoned in Cuba for five years. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Alan Gross is recognized in the Capitol's House chamber during President Barack Obama's State of the Union address on Jan. 20, 2015. Gross was imprisoned in Cuba for five years. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Russia-U.S. prisoner exchanges are different

Exchanges between the U.S. and Russia for decades have always looked subtly different than those involving other countries. Whereas Iran for example has tried to use hostage exchanges to extract large sums of money from the U.S. or to improve relations with Washington, Russia historically has pursued simpler objectives.

“When the Iranians are making these deals, the prisoners are basically the cherry on top,” Danielle Gilbert said. “With the Russians, it’s just about the prisoner exchange. So all of your focus and all of their focus is on how those prisoners are going to be swapped.”

The preferred location during the Cold War era was the bridge that served as a link between East and West Germany. So many tense exchanges took place on the Glienicke Bridge that it became known as the Bridge of Spies and it inspired a 2015 Tom Hanks movie by the same name.

Decades later, Putin seems to be recreating these Cold War-era exchanges on airport tarmacs. In 2010, Russia and the U.S. exchanged captured spies at an airport in Vienna. Then came the Reed-Yaroshenko trade in Turkey four months ago.

The complexities of the Reed-Yaroshenko exchange reflect the two-pronged challenge facing the Biden administration when pursuing a prisoner swap with Russia for Griner. U.S. officials don’t just have to reach a compromise about who to give up in the exchange. Figuring out how the exchange occurs may be just as challenging.

In a potential exchange for Griner, the U.S. has reason to be extra vigilant protecting against being cheated. Putin has demonstrated that he’s capable of going back on his word.

In September 2019, Russia and Ukraine negotiated a massive prisoner swap that included 35 people on both sides. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made the mistake of announcing the exchange before the handover took place.

Putin reportedly pounced, threatening to call off the deal unless Ukraine released one more high-value prisoner. Vladimir Tsemakh, a pro-Russian militant from a separatist-held part of Ukraine, was a key witness to the 2014 downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 that killed all 298 people on board.

In previous exchanges between the U.S. and Russia, the two former Cold War adversaries have gone to painstaking lengths to mitigate the threat of double crosses and to create the perception of equality. The most minor logistical trivialities have been planned out, from the spot where the prisoners pass each other, to the types of aircraft used for the swap, to which country gets to land first and take off first.

“Both sides have a vested interest in being seen as co-equals, so every silly little detail is up for negotiation,” Springer said. “If you’re Putin, you’re not going to do anything that makes you come across as the lesser power forced to make an exchange. The U.S. is the same way. We’re very concerned about the messaging.”