President Joe Biden is in a tightening vise between increasingly fretful families of Americans imprisoned in Russia and Vladimir Putin – a leader who has few scruples about using civilians to grind out his political goals.
Biden is facing rising pressure from relatives of WNBA star Brittney Griner and ex-US Marine Paul Whelan, who are frustrated at his failure to bring them home and have questioned whether their fates have his personal attention.
But the White House’s response is only deepening his political discomfort. After Biden on Wednesday phoned Griner’s wife Cherelle and responded to a letter from the basketball player, Whelan’s sister said she was “astonished” her brother did not get similar treatment.
The situation has become yet another crisis bearing down on the White House and testing its sometimes faltering public messaging machine ahead of midterm elections that are likely to be, in part, a referendum on Biden’s presidency.
As the political heat rises on the President, US leverage needed to free the pair is compromised by antagonistic relations between Moscow and Washington, leaving them essentially political pawns caught in a wider geopolitical trap. Given the aftershocks of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the relentless US campaign to isolate and punish the Kremlin, there may never have been a worse time to be an American imprisoned in Russia.
Griner was arrested in February at a Moscow airport one week before the invasion and after playing in Moscow during the WNBA off-season. Russian authorities claimed she had cannabis oil in her luggage and accused her of smuggling significant amounts of a narcotic substance, an offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Griner pleaded guilty on Thursday.
Whelan was arrested in 2018 on espionage charges, which he has denied. He was convicted and sentenced in June 2020 to 16 years in prison in a trial US officials denounced as unfair. He has also questioned whether the Biden White House has been doing everything it can to free him.
Washington says both Americans were wrongfully imprisoned.
While the anguish of Griner and Whelan and their families is justified, raising the public profile of their cases is risky. They’re trying to prod the administration into urgent action, but signs of rising public pressure on Biden are sure to be reported to Putin and his subordinates by Russian diplomats. This could not only complicate the administration’s effort to wall off the fate of the US prisoners from the wider menu of grievances that have shattered US dialogue with Russia; it could also embolden a Russian leader, whom Biden has dubbed a “butcher,” keen to lash out over US sanctions and military aid to Ukraine. It could also up the price for any eventual deal between the US and Russia that wins the release of the Americans – perhaps on the lines of the Cold War-style prisoner swap that freed a sick American, Trevor Reed, in April.
The plight of individuals vs. American interests
In the United States, the plight of Griner, especially, is being viewed through a humanitarian lens. And for loved-ones of those in prison, almost any step to bring them home would be viewed as a small price to pay.
But the White House and the State Department must also guard against signaling to US adversaries like Russia, Iran, China or North Korea, or criminal or terrorist groups, that Washington is open for business for deals to return imprisoned citizens. That would leave all Americans deeply vulnerable when they travel overseas.
Biden’s headache over this issues is only getting worse. It’s politically problematic any time a president looks unable to dictate terms to strongmen abroad. And given his parlous approval ratings, Biden can ill afford his handling of what is essentially a foreign hostage crisis, offering an opening to his domestic political foes.
The President’s political exposure grew significantly in recent days after Griner’s camp upped the pressure, including with a letter to the President from the Phoenix Mercury star herself in which she wrote that she feared being in prison in Russia indefinitely. Her wife, Cherelle, questioned in an interview with CNN whether the effort to free her matched US rhetoric.
Later, at a rally in Arizona held by Griner’s pro-team and Democratic Rep. Greg Stanton, participants expressed concern about her situation.
“I’m frustrated that my wife is not going to get justice,” Cherelle Griner said.
In its rush to make amends with Griner’s camp, the administration may have succeeded mostly in ratcheting up the political brouhaha it was trying to tamp down.
Both Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke by phone on Wednesday with Cherelle Griner to assure her they were pursuing every avenue to free her wife. And the President shared with her a reply he had written to the Phoenix Mercury center. But his attention to Griner’s case immediately caused friction with the family of Whelan. The ex-Marine’s sister told CNN that while they didn’t begrudge the Griner family any of the attention, they wondered why there was outreach to some families and not others.
“I was astonished this morning to hear about this call,” Elizabeth Whelan told CNN’s Erica Hill. “It did make me wonder, should we be pushing for a meeting with the President? What I would really like to see is a functioning process that really didn’t require that.”
Whelan said that her brother had written hundreds of letters, including to Biden, ex-President Donald Trump and members of Congress. While she said that she believes the US government is doing everything it can to bring her brother home, its outreach to the families was insufficient.
“My message to the White House is that other families with far less resources have been waiting for years and years to see some action to bring their loved ones home. What we need to see is something a little more even handed,” she said.
After Elizabeth Whelan appeared on CNN, White House staff spoke to her on the phone, said John Kirby, the coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council.
“I think all of us, and certainly the President, understands the anguish, the fear, the uncertainty and certainly the longing that the family – Elizabeth in particular – is enduring right now,” Kirby told reporters. “He understands that, and he’s made it clear to the entire team that he wants every effort made to do what we can to get Paul home as well.”
Griner and Whelan are not the only Americans imprisoned abroad. A coalition of relatives involved in the “Bring Our Families Home Campaign” has also called on the President to become more personally involved in their cases. Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a meeting with the families and assured them that the administration was doing everything it could. On Tuesday, State Department spokesman Ned Price spoke of the extreme sensitivity of many of the cases while saying he understood the impulse of families to stir as much publicity as possible.
“We don’t, we ourselves, don’t want to do anything, don’t want to say anything that could jeopardize” the cases of Americans imprisoned abroad, Price said. “We have had conversations with families about how they too could avoid doing anything that would further complicate the release of their loved ones.”
The US government is also dealing with cases of two other Americans, Alexander John-Robert Drueke and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, who are being held by the pro-Russia Donetsk People’s Republic after being captured fighting for Ukraine.
Bunny Drueke, the mother of one of the men, told CNN’s Erin Burnett on Wednesday that she was satisfied with the administration’s response.
“I have not heard from President Biden or the White House but I have not expected to; that is not really their responsibility,” she said, adding that she was a happy with Blinken’s role in the matter, and pointing out that her son and his compatriot were different from Griner since they were prisoners of war.
Sensitive diplomatic maneuvering
The position of Americans who are detained by enemies of the United States is especially difficult. While Washington might want to silo the cases of individuals from complicated geopolitical disputes, adversary governments are bound to try to use them for their own ends.
This is why prisoners like Griner have so few options – trapped in a country whose leader has shown little compunction about using innocent civilians as chits.
“Really what’s happened to Brittney Griner – she’s been kidnapped and she’s being held now in exchange for something that Putin wants,” Steve Hall, former CIA chief of Russia operations, said last week.
Hall underscored how US negotiations for the release of prisoners overseas would be viewed by the country’s enemies. “You’re going to incentivize more of this, not just by Russia – North Korea is a perfect example. These rouge states, these authoritarian states … know that all they have to do is nab one American – whether it’s a business person, a tourist, a professional, like Griner – and then they can bargain for whatever it is that they want,” said Hall, a CNN national security analyst.
The price that Russia may demand for leniency for such a high-profile figure now may be rising by the day. Moscow would surely like to extract Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death,” from US jail.
But Biden would face significant resistance from leaders inside the criminal justice hierarchy if he offered Bout in a prisoner swap. It would, for one thing, equate the integrity of a US prosecution – which saw Bout jailed for 25 years for conspiracy to kill Americans, acquiring and exporting anti-aircraft missiles and providing material support to a terrorist organization – with Russian criminal proceedings that Washington sees as a sham.
Such judicial and geopolitical considerations pale for those Americans whose relatives are imprisoned in often primitive and unhealthy conditions thousands of miles from home. These cases end up on the desks of presidents because they are so intractable and often involve unpalatable trade-offs between humanitarian considerations and national interests.
And every choice a president makes comes with considerable downsides.
This story has been updated with additional developments.