Hmmm: Russia acknowledges swap talks for Griner, Whelan

Denis Balibouse/Pool Photo via AP

A “two for two” swap to gain the return of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan?  Now that Russian courts have convicted Griner, their foreign ministry publicly acknowledged this morning for the first time that it’s time to play Let’s Make a Deal.

But isn’t there a Door Number 3 involved, too?

Russian officials confirmed on Thursday they are negotiating with the United States over a prisoner swap.

U.S. officials have reportedly proposed exchanging WNBA star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan for notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Russian Foreign Ministry Deputy Spokesman Ivan Nechayev said at a news briefing that “corresponding competent authorities have been instructed to negotiate the issue” and “are in talks” on the matter, according to Russian news outlet Tass.

The two-for-one proposal isn’t going to fly, The Hill reported on Sunday. Former US ambassador Bill Richardson had started quiet talks on a trade that didn’t go anywhere at the time, but said progress had been made on the broad idea of some sort of swap. The Russians would almost certainly insist on some sort of parity in the exchange, Richardson predicted on ABC’s This Week:

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson predicted Sunday that U.S. citizens Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner, who are imprisoned in Russia, will be freed in a “two-for-two” prisoner swap with Moscow.

“I’m optimistic. I think she’s going to be free,” Richardson said of WNBA star Griner on ABC’s “This Week.”

“There’s going to be a prisoner swap, though, and I think it’ll be two-for-two, involving Paul Whelan. We can’t forget him.”

Ahem. Richardson and apparently the Biden administration are forgetting about a third American, as Karen reminded us a week ago. Mark Fogel got arrested in Russia a year ago on similar drug charges as Griner faced, and under similar circumstances. Fogel argued that he had a medical use for marijuana when he was arrested while going back to a teaching job in Russia, just as Griner did — but Fogel doesn’t play in a professional sports league.

The Associated Press seems to be the only news agency still talking about Fogel, but its analysis today only brings him up to demonstrate his lack of comparative value to America. No, really:

If anything, in a backhanded sort of way, the Griner ordeal illustrates how far women’s sports have come in the United States, how far their profile has been elevated — offering to trade a Russian arms dealer who is nicknamed the “Merchant of Death” and is serving a 25-year sentence for a Black, openly gay, women’s basketball player who admitted transporting marijuana into a country that strictly forbids it.

Does that happen 20 or 30 years ago?

Now Griner is immediately classified as “wrongfully detained” by a foreign government, which shifts her case to the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. Now the national security adviser, secretary of state and vice president are calling Griner’s spouse, Cherelle. Now President Joe Biden is calling, too, promising to pursue “every avenue to bring Brittney home.”

Fogel’s wife says she has yet to hear from anyone other than what she describes as mid-level State Department officials.

“That hurt,” Fogel wrote in a letter to his family, according to The Washington Post, after learning he wasn’t part of the proposed prisoner swap. “Teachers are at least as important as bballers.”

Or are they? Maybe Vladimir Putin knows America better than we do.

Yeesh. Perhaps the State Department is working on a separate deal for Fogel, but if so, why? It would make more sense to package up any trades into one swap, especially given how much Putin would want Bout’s talents at this particular moment in time. The AP also reports that the Russians want Vadim Krasikov back from Germany, where he’s serving a life sentence for murdering a Chechen dissenter. That was an assassination that Western intel agencies strongly suspect was plotted by Putin and/or his inner circle, which explains why they’re anxious to get him back.

The Biden administration has been trying to get a deal for Griner and Whelan, at least, for months to no avail. Now that Griner’s trial has concluded, the Washington Post reports that Russia is willing to deal — but on their terms:

Senior Russian officials have repeatedly warned Washington against “megaphone diplomacy,” or efforts to use public pressure to try to obtain Griner’s release in talks. Moscow has demanded that such talks take place behind closed doors and without public comment on the details of negotiations.

The Kremlin warned last week that any disclosures could “thwart the entire procedure.”

“The Americans have made this mistake,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday. “They have decided for some reason to solve these problems by the megaphone method. This is not how they are solved.”

Nechayev reiterated that message in his comments Thursday: “We call on the U.S. authorities not to speculate on sensitive matters that affect the fate of specific people, while at the same time abandoning futile attempts to put pressure on us, and we call on them to focus on practical work through established channels.”

Translation: The US is going to have to dance to Putin’s tune, and that means a lot of dancing. Putin’s unhappy with Biden and the US over Ukraine and has every incentive to make Biden sweat over Griner. In fact, the idea of avoiding “megaphone diplomacy” in this instance may end up benefiting Biden by keeping any concessions from being publicized — and perhaps that may minimize them in the end, too.

But if we leave Fogel behind, Biden had better prepare for significant backlash — especially if he loudly takes credit for getting Griner and Whelan back.

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