My oh my, the Biden administration has suddenly gotten chatty about its negotiations with Russia over imprisoned Americans Brittany Griner and Paul Whelan. The potential for resolving the situation with a trade involving imprisoned arms dealer Viktor Bout looked obvious, especially after the prisoner-swap deal for Trevor Reed in May.
So why hasn’t it happened? After a lot of criticism over Joe Biden’s seeming inaction, the White House leaked to CNN today that they made that pitch weeks ago. Vladimir Putin hasn’t responded, they claim:
After months of internal debate, the Biden administration has offered to exchange Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms trafficker serving a 25-year US prison sentence, as part of a potential deal to secure the release of two Americans held by Russia, Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, according to people briefed on the matter.
These sources told CNN that the plan to trade Bout for Whelan and Griner received the backing of President Joe Biden after being under discussion since earlier this year. Biden’s support for the swap overrides opposition from the Department of Justice, which is generally against prisoner trades.
“We communicated a substantial offer that we believe could be successful based on a history of conversations with the Russians,” a senior administration official told CNN Wednesday. “We communicated that a number of weeks ago, in June.” …
“It takes two to tango. We start all negotiations to bring home Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained with a bad actor on the other side. We start all of these with somebody who has taken a human being American and treated them as a bargaining chip,” the official said. “So in some ways, it’s not surprising, even if it’s disheartening, when those same actors don’t necessarily respond directly to our offers, don’t engage constructively in negotiations.”
If that sounds defensive, it is. It was bad enough two weeks ago when NBA star LeBron James accused Biden of dragging his feet, implying that “America” didn’t care about Griner and that she’d be happier living somewhere else. James later apologized for those dumb comments, but last night Trevor Reed himself criticized the White House, too, and not just for the delay in getting Griner back:
In an NBC News Exclusive, Trevor Reed says President Biden isn’t doing enough to bring WNBA star Brittney Griner or Paul Whelan back home.
He tells @HallieOnNBC:
“The White House has the ability to get them out extremely fast, and they clearly have chosen not to do that.” pic.twitter.com/1KhA3XIgTc
— Hallie Jackson NOW (@HallieOnNBC) July 27, 2022
Former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, who was detained in a Russian prison in 2019 and released in April, is speaking up for WNBA star Brittney Griner as she finds herself in a similar situation. Reed said the White House is “not doing enough” to free Griner, Axios reports.
The former marine also advocated for businessman Paul Whelan, another American detained in Russia.
“In my opinion, the White House has the ability to get them out extremely fast, and they clearly have chosen not to do that. So no, in my opinion, they’re not doing enough,” Reed said on NBC‘s Hallie Jackson NOW.
That’s pretty harsh criticism, especially considering that the Biden administration just engineered the trade for Reed a couple of months ago. That amplifies the other criticism, perhaps mostly that coming from Whelan’s family about how Griner’s celebrity might be overshadowing the fact that Paul Whelan has been detained far longer and in grimmer circumstances to boot.
But if Putin isn’t picking up the phone, there’s not much Biden can do. Or is there? Here’s another curiously announcement from the Biden administration, and another twist:
“We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release,” Blinken said in remarks at the State Department.
Blinken said he plans to speak with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in the coming days and will bring up the proposal to free both Americans, who the U.S. says have been wrongfully detained by Moscow.
The conversation will be the first time that the two have spoken since Russia invaded Ukraine at the end of February.
The first time? We certainly know that the US and Russia conduct lower-level communications; otherwise Reed would still be in Russia. If the White House could successfully communicate with Moscow well enough to pull that off without involving direct Blinken-Lavrov dialogue, they should have been able to communicate another swap proposal, too. That doesn’t mean that they’re fibbing — Putin and Lavrov may have decided to keep Griner and Whelan for more value than Bout, for instance — but it’s curious why it would have taken “weeks” for Blinken to take some initiative, and only do it when Reed publicly criticized Biden and his team.
Of course, this administration rarely if ever demonstrates strategic or even tactical thinking. They react rather than control events. That’s why it’s easy to believe that they made an obvious offer to Russia to trade Bout for Griner and Whelan and then didn’t do much until getting called out by Reed last night. Suddenly, Blinken’s pressing Lavrov and the White House is leaking to CNN about its efforts. About the best one can say about this is that Reed got results, at least in getting some answers and possibly in making this politically painful enough for Biden and his team to do something about it. That’s not particularly impressive, but it is consistent.