'Dangerously misguided' but maybe necessary: US negotiates scary Brittney Griner swap with Russia

The United States government on Wednesday made public what everybody had suspected for months: it was negotiating a deal with Russia to free WNBA star Brittney Griner.

Reactions from experts in hostage negotiation were split. Publicizing deals to free Americans sets bad precedent and endangers Americans, some say. Others believe previous examples of such exchanges demonstrate it's the only way to safely return wrongly detained prisoners.

The State Department has determined that Griner has been "wrongfully detained" by Moscow.

Officially, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. made a "substantial proposal" to the Kremlin "weeks ago" but offered no specifics. It was the first public acknowledgement that the highest levels of diplomatic relations were working to bring the WNBA star home. Any agreement would involve a prisoner swap with Russia or concessions on recent economic sanctions, and CNN reported shortly before Blinken's announcement that the U.S. had offered notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

More: Brittney Griner timeline: What has happened since the WNBA star was detained

More: U.S. made 'substantial' offer for Brittney Griner prisoner swap with Russia

Blinken said he plans to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the coming weeks about the cases of Griner, who could face 10 years on drug charges, and Paul Whelan, who is also considered "wrongfully detained" in Russia.

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is escorted to a courtroom for a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, on July 27, 2022.
WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is escorted to a courtroom for a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, on July 27, 2022.

The government taking the public behind the curtains was somewhat surprising, said Dani Gilbert, a Rosenwald Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy and International Security at the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College.

"It doesn’t necessarily portend good news in the negotiation to make that kind of announcement," Gilbert told USA TODAY Sports.

Russia did not want the same openness on the negotiations compared to the United States.

"We know that such issues are discussed without any such release of information," Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters during a conference call. "Normally, the public learns about it when the agreements are already implemented."

The deal being on the table for weeks signaled to Gilbert that "the Russians refuse to take yes for an answer." She also noted Russia is unlikely to accept any deal before Griner's trial ends, which her lawyers predict will occur sometime in August. Griner plead guilty "without intent" earlier this month; the two-time Olympic gold medalist testified Wednesday she accidentally packed vape cartridges filled with cannabis.

"They've wanted Viktor Bout for a long time," said Gilbert. "They got an offer for Viktor Bout. They didn’t take it."

Who is Viktor Bout?

Some critics described the trade as dangerously misguided.

“It is a shame that this administration cannot differentiate between compassion and naivete in conducting such ill-fated barters as that being offered for Viktor Bout,” said Rob Zachariasiewicz, one of the Drug Enforcement Administration agents behind the operation that led to Bout's 2008 arrest in Thailand.

“Americans abroad throughout the world just became a commodity” – a bargaining chip to be detained and traded for others that Russia or other hostile nations want to bring home, he warned. “Be wary.”

COLUMN: I helped capture Russia's 'Merchant of Death.' We must not swap him for Brittney Griner.

The U.S. should not abandon its citizens in their time of need, said Zachariasiewicz, who retired at the end of 2019 as a top illicit finance official at DEA and now runs Steadfast Consulting.

But Washington’s efforts should not be centered around an ill-advised trade, especially for someone known as the "Merchant of Death," who provided the fuel for conflicts across the globe, Zachariasiewicz said.

“Bout was a critical player in the global illicit arms trade not because he could obtain weapons but because he could deliver his destructive cargo anywhere in the world through his control of a private fleet of military aircraft. And he did just that,” Zachariasiewicz wrote in a recent op-ed for USA TODAY.

"Is it fair?" Gilbert said. "No, because fair implies a moral equivalence between these individuals that absolutely does not exist."

Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine who was held in Russia and released via prisoner swap in April, said Whelan's arrest prior to his proves it doesn't prevent certain aggressors from acting badly.

"There's no legitimacy to that argument in my opinion," he told CNN. "I'm extremely optimistic about (the deal) ... if the Russians are not stupid, they'll take that offer."

'A very bad message'

Swapping prisoners and offering concessions – to terrorist organizations or dangerous nations – is possibly highly problematic, said Rob Saale, a former FBI hostage negotiator.

“Yeah, you get her or a couple of people out now,” Saale told USA TODAY recently. “But down the road, it sends a message to other countries that if you want something from the U.S. government you just take some Americans, trump up some charges.”

Gilbert says there is credence to the bad precedent argument.

"That’s a very bad message to send," Gilbert said.

But Gilbert added an important caveat.

“At the same time, we know from past experience the only way to bring people home is through these deals," he said. "It’s nearly impossible to stand with one case and say this is going to be the one we don’t go to the negotiating table for."

Bring Our Families Home Campaign, which supports the causes of wrongfully detained Americans abroad, said no data exists to support prisoner exchanges leading to more hostage-taking or arbitrary detentions.

What would Gilbert like to see from the government going forward?

A better strategy.

Stronger prevention and punishment mechanisms – such as those outlined in last week's executive order signed by President Joe Biden – against actors who make wrongful detentions of U.S. citizens must be a central part of the conversation, Gilbert said.

"I think it’s a sign there is going to be a lot more negotiation to come," she said.

Contributing: Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Brittney Griner, Paul Whelan prisoner swap pushed by US is dangerous