Putin exploits US divisions to gain leverage in prisoner swaps, advocate says

Brittney Griner
FILE – WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner sits in a cage at a court room prior to a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 27, 2022. Now that she’s back in the U.S., Griner plans to be out of the public spotlight for awhile spending time with her wife. She hasn’t said if she’ll ever play basketball again. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool, File) Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

Putin exploits US divisions to gain leverage in prisoner swaps, advocate says

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A hostage swap that freed WNBA star Brittney Griner after a 10-month stint in Russian detention while leaving behind former Marine Paul Whelan is a Kremlin tactic to foster “chaos” by exploiting political cleavages, a hostage advocate said.

Griner was exchanged last week for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. But U.S. officials said that after months of negotiations, Russian President Vladimir Putin was unwilling to consider a deal for Whelan. The Biden administration revealed that it made a “substantial proposal” to bring Griner and Whelan home, both of whom the United States considered wrongfully detained.


Griner’s release has prompted some to question why, after four years and successive U.S.-Russia prisoner swaps, Whelan was still out of reach. The White House said Moscow rejected “every possible offer” to return Whelan due to “sham” espionage charges against him but that talks are ongoing.

Jonathan Franks, a spokesperson for the family of U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, who was freed in a prisoner swap with Russia in April, said Russia leverages existing political divides to its advantage.

In the wake of Griner’s return, former President Donald Trump said he had “turned down a deal with Russia” to exchange Bout for Whelan, writing in a Truth Social post that he “wouldn’t have made the deal for a hundred people.”

Franks said painting the deal in a bad light could prompt skepticism about future trades, making it harder to “dislodge” Whelan’s case.

“We’ve got to be careful going out there and making political attacks on a deal like this. If the choice is one American or none, what, they want us to choose none?” Franks said. “Americans seem to be unable to resist becoming useful idiots for the Russians.”

He said playing into Putin’s tactics could strengthen Russia’s hand at the negotiating table.

“If I was Putin and I wanted to create chaos in the United States, one way to do that would be to release Brittney before Paul, or the converse, Paul before Brittney, and space out the releases,” Franks continued. “A big piece of this … is the Russians sort of turning the knife a little bit in opening culture war cleavages so that they can sit back and watch the chaos knowing full well they can’t touch us militarily.”

Whelan’s family has said they are thankful for Griner’s release but disappointed that Paul has not been freed.

“The Biden administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen,” David Whelan, Paul Whelan’s brother, said in a statement last week.

Praising the family’s “poise and grace” as they confront Paul Whelan’s fate, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the administration would work tirelessly on Paul Whelan’s case. And on Friday, Griner told Biden that she would “do whatever I can to help you” bring him back.

People familiar with hostage cases said it can be challenging to reconcile the competing dynamics that make a deal possible.

While “bad press” can serve as an accelerant to prioritize a trade, Bout’s attorney said the desire to reassure families publicly can be counterproductive.

“You weaken your position when you go public” with what you want, Steve Zissou said. “It minimizes leverage.”


Franks said Russia is able to bide its time, even as advocates in the U.S. look for ways to lay the groundwork for a swap that may appear unpalatable.

“Selling each prisoner trade was always sort of a monumental, uphill battle,” Franks said. “I think part of the challenge we’re facing with Whelan now is the Russians look at this and go, ‘Guys, we offered you this deal a couple years ago. Now that you suddenly want to take it, it’s not an emergency for us.’”

© 2022 Washington Examiner

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