The political prisoners dilemma

By Tara Sonenshine, Professor of Practice of Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

With all the news in the world, some might have missed the recent visit by former Gov. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.) to Moscow to discuss the release of Brittany Griner and Paul Whelan, as well as other Americans detained in Russia. Now reports are that he has been asked to stand down and await official instructions.

As President Biden has just met with the families of Griner and Whelan, hopes are high for their imminent release.

Having been sentenced to 9.5 years in prison, basketball star Brittney Griner could be soon heading home from Russia with American businessman Paul Whelan who has spent over two years in forced prison labor in Moscow. Whelan was sentenced to 16 years in prison, accused of violating national security.  

Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout, could be soon on his way home from an American federal prison, where he was serving a 25-year sentence. 

Historians and political pundits will continue to debate the pros and cons of prisoner swaps, but for the families of those potentially coming home, it is a time of intense hope. Griner recently appealed her conviction amid discussions between Russian and American officials over the contours of the prisoner trade. 

What might amaze people is that you could even have a prisoner swap between countries engaged in war. While Europe, America and Russia are fighting over gas, grain and weapons, we can still talk about prisoners.

But that is the brilliance of diplomacy. Compartmentalization allows countries to de-conflict on some areas while remaining actively opposed in others. This happened during the Cold War when America was critical of Soviet human rights abuses but able to reach agreement on major issues like arms control. Behind-the-scenes, diplomatic activity is always important.

In June in Geneva, U.S. and Russian diplomats agreed to set up a back channel to cordon off the prisoner issue, which enabled talks on the fate of Griner and Whelan to continue.. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced earlier this month that a “substantial proposal” on Griner and Whelan had been put forward to the Russians, but he did not elaborate on the details. The meeting with families may provide more clues on those details.

The prisoner swap also would reflect the importance of public diplomacy. As global media began to pay more attention to the detention of Americans in Russia over the past few months, pressure on the U.S. administration bubbled up. Op-es and editorials calling for Griner’s release keep her case in the public eye.

 Similarly, in Moscow, the artwork of Victor Bout found its way onto public buildings. 

People power is effective when deployed along with official diplomacy and what is called Track II diplomacy, which is what Gov. Richardson was doing — a bit off the formal path with a nod of approval and coordination with formal government officials.

The good news about a proposed U.S.-Russian prisoner swap is not just the freedom it portends for Americans detained in Moscow, but that communications between nuclear powers continue despite the war in Europe. That bodes well for avoiding the disastrous scenario of an exchange of nuclear weapons instead of prisoners.

The bad news is that this possible prisoner swap would not be the last that will be needed to get all detainees home. Still in a Russian jail is American teacher Marc Fogel, who works for our embassy in Moscow and is also charged with drug use. And this prisoner swap does not address the dozens of Americans being wrongly detained around the world by authoritarian governments that do not respect the right to a free and fair trial or human rights.

Interestingly, what has changed in the decades since the old Cold War is that instead of spies being traded, we have ordinary citizens like sports figures being detained. Griner was never charged with a national security crime. The Russians sought to punish her for breaking their overly harsh drug laws. This is not like 1960, when Francis Gary Powers, an American pilot, was shot down over Soviet airspace. After harsh questioning by the KGB, Powers was convicted of espionage and sentenced to three years in a Soviet prison and seven more of hard labor. In 1962, Powers and a detained American student were traded for Rudolf Abel, a captured Soviet spy.

What remains unchanged in this story is the sorry state of U.S.-Russian relations and the conditions for Ukrainians both inside Ukraine and, as refugees, around the world. America’s goal remains a democratic, free and independent Ukraine. Right now, everyone in Ukraine is a prisoner of war.

For the families of Griner and Whelan, this is a time for maximal pressure to give the families good news about their impending freedom. Freedom is a blessing. May all those who are wrongfully detained overseas be reunited with their loved ones. 

This piece is republished from The Hill.

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