"We're getting a terrible, America-hating WNBA player, while Russia gets an international arms dealer," Donald Trump's son Donald Trump Jr. slandered about the prisoner swap between the two great powers. As is typical for the family, the criticism overshot the mark. But the Trumps are by no means alone in their outrage: numerous well-known Republicans scoffed, even railed against the exchange of griner but.
Despite the well-known, knee-jerk hatred that resonates with criticism, the grain of truth is hard to deny. Because from a purely arithmetical point of view, the deal between the USA and Russia actually makes little sense: A basketball player arrested for alleged possession of cannabis oil is exchanged for what is probably the greatest arms smuggler of his time, the "Dealer of Death" (read why But is so important to the Kremlin You here).
Especially since there was an alternative, as critics note: US President Joe Biden could have insisted on the extradition of ex-Marine soldier Paul Whelan, who has been imprisoned since 2018. He has been behind Russian bars for four years for alleged espionage. Also from the Ministry of Justice, in Biden's own ranks, there was apparently criticism for the supposedly unequal business. "Swapping a notorious international arms dealer for a basketball player is insane," the Washington Post quoted an anonymous insider as saying. But: Was Whelan's release ever a valid option?
Born in Canada to British parents who moved to the US as a child, Paul Whelan holds four citizenships: US, Irish, British and Canadian. He joined the BBC, which relies on military files, in 1994 as a US Navy reservist. He had previously been a police officer for six years. He worked as an IT project manager in the early 2000s, but was sent to Iraq twice (2004 and 2006) with the Marines. This is also the time when Whelan is said to have traveled to Russia for the first time, which he also reported on his website.
According to the BBC, he wrote under photos he published at the time that he had had a "quite pleasant time" visiting Moscow and St. Petersburg. In 2008, Whelan, who had made it to staff sergeant, was dishonorably discharged. According to Pentagon documents, the robbery was involved. According to a CNN report, Whelan was accused of using someone else's social security number and writing "bad checks." His family knew nothing about it.
In 2018, when he allegedly traveled to Moscow for the wedding of a former naval comrade, everything got out of hand for the now 52-year-old: Whelan was arrested by the FSB secret service, accused of espionage. According to his lawyer, Whelan is said to have received a memory stick with secret information. However, his client knew nothing about this. Others suspected at the time that the Kremlin only cashed in on Whelan to exchange him for gun rights activist Marija Valeryevna Butina, who was imprisoned in the United States.
In 2020 he was sentenced to 16 years in a penal colony. Both his family and the US government continue to insist on Whelan's innocence.
According to media reports, Whelan was originally intended as part of the recently struck deal with Moscow: Griner and Whelan for But, was the Biden administration's offer. According to information from the "Washington Post", the Kremlin only wanted to put Whelan on the exchange note in months of negotiations if the USA were to increase the stakes as well. Moscow had squinted at former FSB Colonel Vadim Krassikov, who has been sentenced to life imprisonment in Germany for murder. But Berlin vehemently resisted.
Shortly before the exchange, Alexei Tarasov, one of But's lawyers, told Russian state television that Whelan could not be part of the deal because the exchange had to be on a "one-for-one" basis. "If we exchange one person, we should exchange them for one person, not two," he is quoted as saying by the BBC.
It is also certain that Griner was the most prominent US citizen in Russian captivity. The fact that the star basketball player and Olympic gold medalist was imprisoned as a black, openly homosexual woman in a country where homophobia is part of politics introduced "racist, gender-specific and social dynamics" into the case, summarizes the US broadcaster NBC together. A supposed trifle mutated into a diplomatic crisis.
In other words, unlike Whelan, the Griner case is a political one. "More than 90 percent of black women voted for Biden in the 2020 presidential election. So if there was indeed a choice to be made, it would have been dead wrong by the president, an often-taken-for-granted group that was most loyal to him, To show loyalty?" asks a writer for the US magazine "Forbes".
The question also arises as to whether Moscow had already confiscated the young woman solely as a bargaining chip. Because of political calculations, Whelan is undoubtedly more valuable to the Kremlin. A high-ranking US government official is said to have confirmed this to the US newspaper "The Hill". For the release of a man who is being held for espionage, the requirements are simply higher. "This was not a situation in which we had a choice," the newspaper quoted him as saying.
To weigh the life of one person against that of another is fundamentally against all rules of ethics. On the political stage, especially in such a charged situation, it is primarily a question of what is feasible. "This was not a decision about which American to bring home," Biden said after Griner's release. "Unfortunately, Russia is treating Paul's case differently than Brittney's for totally illegitimate reasons."
In an interview that Whelan gave to US news channel CNN from prison, the ex-soldier expressed surprise that he was not included in the exchange. He believed "that things were moving in the right direction". "I am very disappointed that more was not done for my release, especially as it will soon be the fourth year since my arrest," said Whelan. On the other hand, he was well aware that higher standards would apply to his release than to Griner's.
Whelan's brother David showed understanding for Washington's decision. After all, it was better to make a deal "that was possible than to wait for one that wouldn't come about," he said. From the family's point of view, it was nevertheless a "disaster" for Whelan. It is the second time this year that the family's hopes have been dashed. Trevor Reed, another former Marine, was released in a deal in April. In return, the Russian Konstantin Yaroshenko, convicted of drug-related offences, was able to return home. Even then, David Whelan expressed doubts that the government would be willing to make the necessary concessions to get his brother released.
Unsurprisingly, after Griner's release, Biden repeatedly emphasized that he had by no means given up on Whelan and never would. You will continue to fight for his return, said the President at a press conference on Thursday.
But the exchange actually gives hope: After months of the semi-cold war between Russia and the USA, there is apparently still enough prudence on both sides not only to maintain a dialogue, but also to reach genuine compromises. Whelan isn't giving up hope either: "My bags are packed. I just need a plane to pick me up," he told CNN.
Quellen: "NBC"; "BBC"; "CNN"; "The Hill"; "Forbes"; "Washington Post"