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Brittney Griner’s release and the strategic value of good diplomacy

Miracles happen. But so does good diplomacy.

The release of WNBA star Brittney Griner is a huge moment for Griner and for America at a time when public confidence in government is low.

Griner was detained in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, charged with possessing vape cannisters with cannabis oil. She faced years of difficult imprisonment in Russia, having recently been moved to a labor detention camp with harsh conditions.

President Biden and his team deserve credit for negotiating a deal for the release of Griner in exchange for Russia arms dealer Viktor Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death.” Bout was in the middle of a 25-year sentence in a U.S. federal prison.

Months of delicate diplomatic negotiations took place against the backdrop of war between Russia and Ukraine during which Biden put an offer on the table and Russian President Vladimir Putin played a wait-and-see game. 

These kinds of hostage deals require multiple officials from the State Department, CIA and, of course, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow doing delicate balancing acts — the art of diplomacy. “This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time. We never stopped pushing for her release,” Biden said.

When Griner descends the airport stairs, after being medically examined by American physicians, the world will cheer for a woman emerging from a penal colony after months of imprisonment.

While celebrating Griner’s release, we can’t forget the remaining Americans held in captivity against their will, including Paul Whelan, held in Russia since December 2018, accused of spying. The Russians did not want to include Whelan in the exchange. The U.S. rightly took the deal, knowing that getting Griner home was the only possibility. 

Sadly, it leaves America without bargaining chips for Whelan. His case is far more complex than the drug charges against Griner. The Russians insist Whelan, an ex-Marine who had traveled to Russia for a wedding, was in possession of sensitive Russian national security information.

The question hanging over all of this is: Why now? Putin seems to be trying to get in the West’s good graces. Perhaps this “long process” of war with Ukraine, as Putin said yesterday, is not a positive process and that, eventually, conversations will lead to diplomacy. Putin has just given something of value to Biden, which is always a start.

What lessons can be gleaned from this experience?

Public diplomacy matters. The public attention that Griner’s case garnered was a positive in terms of keeping her story in the news. 

Traditional diplomacy also matters. Communications lines, even during war, need to remain open to keep ideas moving and options open. The back channel between Washington and Moscow was critical in floating possibilities, and before today there was no guarantee that Griner would be freed. At moments, it seemed the Russians were just playing games with us. But despite frustrations, the officials stayed at the job.

Now we must re-focus efforts on all Americans wrongfully detained not just in Russia but around the world. Often the numbers are classified, and we hear only about individual cases.

One of the organizations tracking these cases is the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, which estimates that there are around 123 Americans held against their will around the world.

In a recent Foley Legacy Foundation study, the number of individuals held by states such as Russia, China and Iran is growing compared to a decade ago. No longer is it just non-state actors and terrorist organizations grabbing Americans for political leverage.

Lastly, we must keep our eyes on propaganda. The world is awash in rumors and disinformation. Russian propaganda has misled its own citizens about this war and about America. The result of social media crackdowns in China, Iran and Russia makes it increasingly difficult to have honest conversations with leaders who leave their own people in the dark. Clearly, Brittney Griner was in a dark place and truth about her fate was becoming difficult to ascertain, just as we wonder what is really happening to Whelan. 

Reliable, credible news and information are vital for international affairs as well as for individuals caught up in overseas and national affairs. At this moment, the news is great for Brittney Griner. The holiday season at the Griner home shall be joyful.

Tara D. Sonenshine is the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Public Diplomacy at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Tags Biden Brittney Griner Brittney Griner Brittney Griner detention Griner sentence Prisoner exchange prisoner swap Russia Russia-Ukraine conflict Vladimir Putin

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