After Griner-Bout-Deal: Putin open to further prisoner exchanges - but many in the USA fear a catch

For many in the US, the return of basketball player Brittney Griner left a bitter taste.

After Griner-Bout-Deal: Putin open to further prisoner exchanges - but many in the USA fear a catch

For many in the US, the return of basketball player Brittney Griner left a bitter taste. While US President Joe Biden announced the athlete's release from Russian captivity last week and social networks were flooded with congratulations, Republicans in particular criticized the price for her freedom as too high.

After months of negotiations—which Washington had hoped would also free ex-Marine Paul Whelan—the US government was forced to let Russian arms dealer Viktor But go in exchange for Griner. Russia's President Vladimir Putin was then open to further prisoner exchanges. But critics fear that this would make the United States vulnerable.

The question of whether further deals could follow throws a new light on a well-known dilemma: do prisoner swaps bring more harm than good?

The Griner case shows all too clearly that there are no exchanges without compromise. On the one hand there is the 32-year-old basketball player who was arrested at Moscow Airport almost ten months ago for small amounts of cannabis oil. On the other hand is Viktor Bout, 55, one of the world's leading arms dealers. The so-called "Dealer of Death" has been behind bars in the United States for more than ten years, and Putin personally campaigned for his release.

A fair exchange? Hardly, criticize leading members of Congress. "The Russians and other regimes that are taking American citizens hostage cannot pretend that there is equality between the Brittney Griners of the world and the likes of Viktor But (...)," said Senator Bob Menendez, Democratic chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate. "We must stop inviting dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans abroad as bargaining chips."

Even sharper words are coming from the Republicans in particular. But's release is a "gift" for Putin, complains Kevin McCarthy, leader of the Conservatives in the House of Representatives. "Leaving Paul Whelan behind for this is irresponsible." Ex-President Donald Trump also described the exchange as an "unpatriotic disgrace".

But the Biden government rejects the criticism. "It wasn't that we had to choose between Griner and Whelan," said US State Department spokesman Ned Price. Rather, it was about releasing one prisoner rather than no prisoner. The Russians have blocked any proposals to release the former marine who was arrested in Russia in 2018 and convicted of alleged espionage. The White House also rejected a request from Moscow to free the Russian Vadim Krasikov, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for the Tiergarten murder in Berlin.

Despite the extremely tense relationship between Washington and Moscow since the Ukraine war, the Kremlin does not rule out the exchange of further prisoners. "Are other (prisoner exchanges) possible? Yes, everything is possible," Putin announced at the end of the week. The domestic secret service FSB is responsible, the talks continue. The exchange that has now taken place is "the result of negotiations and the search for compromises."

But it's the kind of compromise that worries many in the United States.

From the capture of pilot Francis Gary Powers by the Soviet Union in the 1960s, to the Iran hostage crisis of the 1970s, to the more recent detentions of US citizens in North Korea, Iran and China, US governments have always faced the Ask, negotiate - yes or no. It becomes particularly problematic when states use apparently arbitrary arrests as a negotiating tactic.

One such case is that of American college student Otto Warmbier, who was arrested in North Korea in 2016 over an alleged stolen flag. At the same time, the country engaged in a tangible dispute with the international community over unauthorized rocket launches. Warmbier died just days after returning to the United States.

"I think you shouldn't negotiate with terrorists, it's a dangerous path that doesn't end well," said Robert Zachariasiewicz, a former law enforcement agent at Reuters. He himself helped lead the team that put arms dealer But behind bars. "I've spoken to a lot of people at all levels in the Justice Department. They're frustrated, they're disappointed, they feel disempowered."

The Biden government also recognizes the difficulties. "Negotiations for the release of those wrongly imprisoned are often very difficult -- it's just a reality -- in part because of the price that must be paid to bring Americans home to their loved ones, and in part because of the immediate results unfair or arbitrary," said Karine Jean-Pierre, White House spokeswoman.

There are no official figures from the White House on how many Americans are being held abroad. But according to the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation—named after an American journalist who was kidnapped and killed in Syria—there are currently more than 60 US citizens unlawfully detained in 18 countries.

For Paul Whelan, it means persevering. The US President and his team must now consider what is valuable enough for the Russians to obtain a release, the captured ex-marine put it in an interview with "CNN". He does not have high hopes for new negotiations. "And to be honest, who knows how I'll come back in these conditions. Or if I'll come back at all." "Keep your faith, we'll come get you," says the Foreign Ministry.

For them, on the other hand, the dark days are over. Back at freedom, Brittney Griner has played basketball for the first time in ten months. It is not yet clear whether the two-time Olympic champion will continue her career. "She's under no pressure," says her advisor, Colas.

Sources: NY Times, BBC, The Hill, DW, Reuters, with AFP footage

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