President Biden this week assured Cherelle Griner, the wife of detained WNBA player Brittney Griner, that he is working to get the two-time Olympic women's basketball gold medalist released from a Russian jail. Griner pleaded guilty on Thursday to carrying vape cartridges containing cannabis oil through a Moscow airport in February, just before Russia invaded Ukraine, although the U.S. government has classified her as wrongfully detained. Griner, who had been playing basketball in Russia during the WNBA off-season, sent Biden a personal, handwritten message he received on the Fourth of July, asking him not to "forget about me and the other American Detainees." "I'm terrified I might be here forever," she wrote.
Cherelle Griner and other advocates this week stepped up their pressure on Biden to bring Griner home after her personal appeal. Supporters, including the Phoenix Mercury center's coach, said the government would have secured Griner's freedom by now if she weren't a woman, gay, and Black. A group of prominent Black female leaders, saying: "It is imperative, President Biden, that you address this ongoing human rights crisis and make a deal to bring Brittney home quickly and safely." The White House says freeing her is a priority. Is the Biden administration doing enough to bring Griner home?
Griner's guilty plea changes nothing: Bring her home
Griner says she packed the cannabis vape cartridges in haste, not intending to break Russian law, says the Houston Chronicle in an editorial. Her guilty plea "makes it all the more urgent Biden finds a way to remove her from Russia's clutches," because she could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison. Maybe the administration's early "muted" involvement in Griner's case might have been due to a fear "that a large campaign might only drive up her value as a bargaining chip for Russia."
Supporters have questioned whether "the administration just wasn't pushing as hard for a Black, gay woman whose skills far outmatched her household recognition." Griner could face 10 years in prison. The U.S. has shown it can free Americans with "high-profile swaps," like the one that brought U.S. Marine Trevor Reed home "in exchange for a Russian drug trafficker." The administration "needs to work just as hard" to bring Griner home.
Biden has options
Russia reportedly would consider letting "Brittney Griner out of jail if the United States freed Viktor Bout," a notorious arms trafficker nicknamed the "Merchant of Death," says Fred Kaplan at Slate. The idea at first "seemed unlikely, even preposterous." But The New York Times quoted the former judge who presided at Bout's trial, Shira Scheindlin, "as saying that a swap might not be a bad idea — as long as Russia freed not only Griner but also Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who was arrested on espionage charges in 2018."
Bout was arrested in Thailand in 2008, extradited to the U.S. in 2010, then convicted and sentenced in 2011 to 25 years, and Scheindlin says justice essentially has been served. "If the judge who sentenced Bout now believes that it wouldn't endanger national security to let him go after 11 years of time served, that could give Biden more political leeway to trade his freedom for Griner's, whose plight has become a major priority for the administration."
A trade could free Griner, with consequences
Griner is a hostage, pure and simple, says The Washington Post in an editorial. That's why the State Department has shifted her case to the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, the people responsible for negotiating freedom for Americans wrongfully detained abroad. The blame for her predicament lies squarely with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his "sprawling police state." For Putin, "kidnapping a sports icon at an airport or murdering thousands of civilians in Ukraine is all in a day's crude behavior." This reality puts the Biden administration in a tough spot. Trading for a prisoner like Bout "could win freedom for Ms. Griner but would encourage more hostage-taking; a refusal to trade would consign her to more agony in a Russian prison."
Griner's allies could be hurting her cause
"No one can blame the friends of Brittney Griner for pulling out all the stops to try to win her release," says Phil Boas at the Arizona Republic. But while using a "social justice argument" might touch Biden's heart, it won't move Putin, who is the one who holds the key to Griner's cell. Arguing that Griner's continuing imprisonment is because she's Black, because she's a woman, because she's gay, "has zero influence on a thug like Vladimir Putin in a country like Russia, where government actively works to crush homosexuality and cares little for the rights of minorities." There's a danger that the "high-pressure campaign against Biden" only "underscores his powerlessness." That could make Griner "more valuable to Putin than any prisoner exchange," and make it harder to bring her home.
Update July 11: This piece has been updated to include more context about Viktor Bout's detention.