Britney Griner, the American professional basketball player who had been detained in Russia for 294 days, is now back home in Texas. This return was expected following a political prisoner swap between the Biden administration and Kremlin, where a notorious international arms dealer, Viktor Bout was swapped for a U.S. Basketball player.
Despite the positive undertones of saving an innocent U.S. citizen from Russian mistreatment, especially in this new and revamped cold war toned global atmosphere, it is easy to overlook deep-set problems this swap has so far caused. One of the biggest issues is how retired U.S. Marine Paul Whelan was left behind, especially given that Whelan had dedicated his life to serving his country and had been detained for over four years, and unlike Griner was detained for more outright political reasoning.
Given the complex nature of the swap, the current debates brought up in light of a basketball player being swapped for an international arms dealer, giving the annotation the two are equally important show concern for the U.S. on what concession it will have to make to receive Whelan in the future. It also shines negatively on Biden’s perceived passive or insensible wartime foreign policy.
America & The Political Practice of Hostage Swapping
The practice of hostage swapping is not new to America or Russia. One of the first great examples comes from the Cold War, where the U.S. pilot Gary Powers was exchanged in 1962 for the Russian Spy Colonel Rudolph Abel after two years of imprisonment. This was an example of relatively competent use of hostage swapping, unfortunately, it stands out like a sore thumb amongst all other times this practice has prevented foreign policy progress and even caused dramatic clashes between the U.S. and the rest of the world. As such is the Iran Hostage Crisis and the detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey. Both cases have not only been problematic for further legitimizing this type of foreign policy, but they have also been examples of how there are realist undertones of winners and losers in hostage swaps.
Especially when one considers the Iran Hostage Crisis, both President Carter and Reagan have been ineffective and dragged out the “swap” situations. Carter had lost his approval rating, and his restraint policy cost him his presidency and failure to retrieve hostages. Following up, when Reagan took over, he caved into Iran’s request for weapons from the United States despite an ongoing embargo against Iran. He then got away with it after a deposition in 1990; he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and claimed he could not remember his actions back then. Given Biden’s age, the exchange of a basketball player with an international arms dealer is questionable at best. It is understandable why America might no longer be able to trust its elderly politicians’ decisions which raises an entirely new set of questions about election patterns.
Given the current situation in Ukraine, exchanging a woman person of color basketball player with a high-profile Russian arms dealer seems to not be a foreign policy initiative, instead, it only seems to deflect from Biden’s continuous mismanagement of the Ukrainian war with Russia. Columnists like CNN’s Stephen Collinson may paint the exchange as Biden choosing humanity over geopolitics, but that argument loosely holds considering the amount of time a retired marine had already been expecting to be saved from Russian prison, 2 more years than Griner to be exact.
Despite the pattern of hostage swapping continuously harboring more demands and worse kidnappings by other parties like Russia, it seems futile to believe Biden will begin to use a no-concessions policy as used by Obama in 2015 when it comes to American citizens being used as hostages. This only sets a worse precedent for the future, as the entire world saw, especially Russia: taking any American citizen in Russian detention will easily get Russia what it wants. In this case, it was an international arms dealer. Moreover, with Putin reportedly saying more US-Russian prisoner exchanges are possible, only time can tell what sort of International Relations norm is currently forming in this time of uncertainty and unstable global affairs.