Brittney Griner sentencing renews pressure on President Biden

WASHINGTON – Immediately after a Moscow judge’s pronouncement Britney GrinerThursday to nine years in prison, calls have multiplied for President Biden to find a way to bring her home.

“We call on President Biden and the government of the United States to redouble their efforts to do everything necessary and possible,” the Reverend said. Al Sharpton said in a statement.

US officials and analysts had resigned themselves to a guilty verdict for Ms. Griner, a basketball star who plays for a Russian team during the WNBA offseason. But the chilling reality of his drug trafficking conviction has come as a shock and renewed calls for Mr Biden to secure his release – even as critics fumed that the offer to swap prisoners with Moscow rewards the taking of Russian hostages.

The result is a painful dilemma for the Biden administration as it tries to maintain a hard line against Russian President Vladimir V. Putin over his war in Ukraine.

“There’s nothing good here,” said Andrea Schneider, an international dispute resolution expert at the Cardozo School of Law. “No matter what Biden does, he’s going to be criticized — either we give too much or we don’t work hard enough.”

Kremlin officials had said no potential deal could be reached before his trial was over, raising a glimmer of hope that the verdict could open the door to a swap. But analysts called that unlikely any time soon.

“I don’t think this is going to be resolved quickly,” said Jared Genser, a human rights attorney who represents Americans detained by foreign governments. “I think the fact that Putin didn’t say yes right away means he looked at the American offer and said, ‘Well, that’s their first offer. I can get more than that.

This US offer, first presented to Russia in June, called for the release of Ms. Griner and Paul N. Whelana former Marine arrested in Moscow and convicted of espionage in 2020.

The Biden administration offered to trade the two Americans for the notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is halfway through a 25-year federal prison sentence for offering to sell weapons to a Colombian rebel group that the United States then considered a terrorist organization.

The proposal has already reshaped US diplomacy toward Russia, which had been frozen at senior levels since Putin’s Mr February. 24 invasion of Ukraine. A July 29 phone call between Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, was their first conversation since the start of the war. But that seemed to leave the Kremlin indifferent. The White House says Russia made an unspecified “bad faith” counter-offer that the United States does not take seriously.

On Friday, Lavrov told reporters that the two nations would continue to discuss the issue through established channels. He repeated the Kremlin’s insistence that the United States not discuss the negotiations in public, although Russian media began linking Mr. Bout’s case to Ms. Griner early this summer.

But the pressure is unbalanced. While Mr. Putin has long sought Mr. Bout’s release, perhaps out of loyalty to a man with deep ties to the Russian security state, the arms dealer’s continued imprisonment is costing Mr. Little Putin . Time, in other words, is in Mr. Putin’s favor

Mr. Biden, on the other hand, finds himself stuck on both sides.

On one side are Mrs. Griner supporters. His wife, Cherelle Griner, has publicly pleaded for Mr. Biden to strike a deal with Mr. Putin as soon as possible. Those arguments have been echoed by Mr Sharpton, Democratic activist groups, TV pundits, professional athletes and social media celebrities. (Mr. Sharpton also called for Mr. Whelan’s release on Thursday.)

“How can she feel like America supports her?” said NBA superstar LeBron James in mid-July. “I was like, ‘Do I even want to go back to America?'”

This was before Mr. Biden’s proposal to free Mr. Bout became public. Officials said they leaked the offer, which was confirmed last week by a person briefed on the talks, to increase pressure on Russia. But the revelation may also have reflected a desire to show Mrs. Griner supporters that Mr. Biden was not sitting on his hands.

“We think it’s important for the American people to know how hard President Biden is working to bring Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan home,” said House national security spokesman John F. Kirby. White. said at the time. “We think it’s important that their families know how hard we’re working on this.”

After Ms. Griner was sentenced on Thursday, Mr. Biden renewed his commitment to “pursue all possible avenues to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”

The White House would not say how Mr. Biden could achieve this goal, however. “I don’t think it would be helpful to Brittany or Paul if we talked more publicly about where we are in the talks and what the president might or might not be willing to do,” Mr. said. Kirby.

But almost any additional offers would be sure to amplify criticism of Mr. Biden’s other flank – and accuses Mr. Biden was pandering to extortion by Mr. Putin, a man he has called a criminal of war.

“That’s why dictatorships – like Venezuela, Iran, China, Russia – hold Americans hostage, because they know they’ll get something out of it,” the rep said. Florida Republican Mike Waltz told Newsmax last week. “They know that eventually an administration will pay. And that just puts a target on the back of every American out there.

Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state, echoed the criticism in a Fox News interview last week, saying to free Mr Bout would “likely” lead to more Americans being arrested overseas. And former President Donald J. Trump, who when in office bragged about freeing Americans detained overseas, criticized the proposed deal in crude terms.

Mr Bout, he said, was “absolutely one of the worst in the world, and he is going to be freed because a potentially spoiled person walks into Russia high on drugs”. (Russian officials who detained Ms Griner at a Moscow-area airport in mid-February found less than a gram of cannabis vaping oil in her bags.)

Mr. Genser, the attorney for other detained Americans, noted that Mr. Biden has an option beyond increasing his offer. He could look for new ways to make Mr. Putin suffer.

“You have to significantly increase the cost for Vladimir Putin to keep them in custody,” said Genser. “It’s not just about giving Putin what he wants. It’s about simultaneously increasing the pain for him.

It’s not an easy task, however. Biden administration officials have spent months trying to find ways to inflict enough pain on Mr. Putin to make him stop his invasion of Ukraine. Like the freedom of Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan, this goal also remains elusive.