December 3, 2022

WASHINGTON — Immediately after a Moscow judge sentenced Britney Grenier to nine years in prison Thursday, calls increased for President Biden to find a way to bring her home.

“We call on President Biden and the United States government to redouble their efforts to do everything necessary and possible,” Reverend Al Sharpton said in a statement.

US officials and analysts had resigned from the verdict to convict Ms. Grenier, a basketball star who plays for a Russian team during the WNBA off-season. But the cold reality of her conviction on drug charges came as a shock and renewed calls for Mr. Biden to secure her release – even as critics angered that the offer to swap prisoners for Moscow is the equivalent of holding Russian hostages.

The result is a painful predicament for the Biden administration as it tries to maintain a hard line against Russian President Vladimir Putin over his war in Ukraine.

“There is nothing good here,” said Andrea Schneider, an expert in international conflict resolution at Cardoso College of Law. “No matter what Biden does, he will be criticized – either we are giving too much or we are not working hard enough.”

Kremlin officials have said any potential deal cannot proceed before her trial is complete, creating a glimmer of hope that the ruling could open the door to an exchange. But analysts described that as unlikely any time soon.

“I don’t think this is going to be resolved quickly,” said Jared Jenser, a human rights attorney who represents Americans detained by foreign governments. I think the fact that Putin didn’t say yes right away means that he looked at the American offer and said, ‘Well, this is their first offer. I can have more than that. “

That US offer, first made to Russia in June, sought the release of Ms Grenier and Paul N. Whelan, a former Marine arrested in Moscow and convicted of espionage in 2020.

The Biden administration has proposed exchanging Americans for notorious Russian arms dealer Victor Bout, who is serving a 25-year federal prison sentence for offering to sell weapons to a Colombian rebel group that the United States considers a terrorist organization.

The proposal has already reshaped US diplomacy toward Russia, which has been frozen at high levels since Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24. The phone call on the matter on July 29 between Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinkin and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, had their first conversation since the war began. But it appears that the Kremlin has not been affected. The White House says Russia has made an unspecified “bad faith” counteroffer that the United States does not take seriously.

Lavrov told reporters on Friday that the two countries would continue to discuss the issue through existing channels. He reiterated the Kremlin’s insistence that the United States not openly discuss negotiations, even though Russian media began linking Mr. Bout’s case to Ms Grenier’s earlier this summer.

But the pressure is unbalanced. While Mr. Putin has long sought Mr. Bout’s release, perhaps because of his loyalty to a man with deep ties to the Russian security state, continuing to imprison the arms dealer costs Putin little. In other words, time is on Mr. Putin’s side.

On the other hand, Mr. Biden finds himself squeezed on both sides.

On one side are the supporters of Mrs. Grenier. His wife, Sheryl Greiner, has made public pleas to Biden to make a deal with Mr. Putin as soon as possible. These appeals have been echoed by Mr. Sharpton, Democratic activist groups, television analysts, professional athletes and celebrities on social media. (Mr. Sharpton on Thursday also called for Mr. Whelan’s release.)

“How can she feel that America is supporting her?” NBA star LeBron James said in mid-July. “I’d feel like, ‘Do I even want to go back to America?'” “

That was before Mr. Biden’s proposal to release Mr. Butt was announced. Officials said they revealed the offer, which someone confirmed early last week to the talks, to increase pressure on Russia. But the revelation may also have reflected a desire to show Ms. Greiner’s supporters that Biden wasn’t sitting on his hands.

“We believe it is important for the American people to know how seriously President Biden is working to bring Britney Grenier and Paul Whelan home,” White House national security spokesman John F. Kirby said at the time. “We think it’s important for their families to know how hard we are working on this.”

Following Ms Greiner’s sentencing on Thursday, Biden renewed his commitment to “pursue all possible avenues to bring Britney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible”.

However, the White House has not explained how Biden could achieve this goal. “I don’t think it would be beneficial for Britney or Paul to talk more publicly about our place in the talks and what the president might or might not be willing to do,” Kirby said.

But any additional offers would almost certainly amplify criticism from Biden’s other wing — and accusations that Biden was bending to blackmail Mr. Putin, the man he called a war criminal.

“This is why dictatorships – like Venezuela, Iran, China and Russia – take Americans hostage, because they know they will get something in return,” Republican Representative Mike Waltz told Newsmax last week. They know in the end that some administrations will pay the price. And that puts a goal on the back of every American out there.”

Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state, reiterated the criticism in an interview with Fox News last week, saying Mr. Bot’s release “is likely to lead to more arrests” of Americans abroad. Former President Donald J. Trump, who while in office took pride in releasing Americans held abroad, criticized the proposed deal in crude terms.

“It was definitely one of the worst in the world,” Mr. Bot said, “and he will be given his freedom because someone who might be spoiled goes to Russia laden with drugs.” (The Russian officials who detained Ms. Greiner at an airport in the Moscow region in mid-February found less than one gram of cannabis oil in her bags.)

Mr. Jenser, the attorney for the other detained Americans, noted that Mr. Biden has a choice beyond raising his offer. He can look for new ways to make Putin suffer.

“You have to significantly raise the cost to Vladimir Putin of keeping them in custody,” Mr. Jenser said. It’s not just about giving Putin what he wants. It’s about making him feel pain at the same time.”

This is not an easy task, though. Biden administration officials have spent months trying to devise ways to take enough pain on Mr. Putin to get him to stop his invasion of Ukraine. Like the freedom of Mrs. Greiner and Mr. Whelan, this goal also remains elusive.

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