Is the Brittney Griner prisoner swap a 'coup' for Russia?
Security experts cautioned that the swap potentially sends a message that arresting and jailing Americans on trumped up charges could motivate foreign governments to continue the practice. But Texans who knew Griner as an athlete and student shared their joy over the news.
The release of former WNBA and Baylor Bears star Brittney Griner from a Russian prison Thursday has elicited cheers from some lawmakers and former coaches of the Houston native.
But her release is also spurring discussions on whether Vladimir Putin’s regime might have gotten one over on the Biden administration.
Griner was convicted on drug charges after Russian airport officials found vape cartridges and cannabis oil in her baggage in February. She was released after the Biden administration negotiated a prisoner exchange that guaranteed accused Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout would return to his home country.
"She's safe. She's on a plane. She's on her way home after months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable conditions," Biden said from the Roosevelt Room, NPR reported.
Adam Kline, director of UT Austin's Robert Strauss Center on International Security and Law, said the deal with Putin will be seen by Russian leaders as a “coup.”
A close friend of Putin, Bout was convicted in an American court of conspiring to kill Americans and providing support to terrorist organizations. Bout’s original sentence would have kept him in jail until 2029.
“In their extremely cynical and transactional way, the Russians will have to view this as a coup, having taken a prominent American as effectively a hostage,” Kline told the Texas Standard. “They've secured the release of someone who's known to be connected to their intelligence services, which for them, those are their brethren as they see it in their cynical way. And they’ve managed to bring him home.”
Kline also cautioned that the swap potentially sends a message that arresting and jailing Americans on trumped up charges could motivate foreign governments to continue the practice.
“Our adversaries know that this works. And however happy we should be to see an American released, we have to also recognize that this will confirm for them that this gets results, and that creates a huge incentive to grab Americans who they think will attract sympathy,” he said.
As discussion over the politics surrounding the prisoner exchange and what, if any, repercussions will follow played out, Texans who knew Griner as an athlete and student shared their joy over the news.
“I went from a groggy, sleepy head to an instantaneous, wide-awake joyous person,” said Debbie Jackson, Griner’s former coach at Nimitz High School. “It’s just the best news. I am just so excited for Brittney and her family and her wife. It’s just wonderful.
“I am an optimistic person by nature, and I never lost hope,” she continued. “But that nine-year sentence and that day she was actually transported to the penal colony, were kind of low points in this ordeal.”
At Baylor University, where Griner stared for the Lady Bears from 2009 to 2013, officials said the alumna’s return to the United States was long overdue.
“Brittney Griner is a member of our Baylor Family, and we are extremely grateful that she is on her way back home to the United States. We praise God this day has finally come,” said Mack Rhoades, the school’s vice president and director of intercollegiate athletics, and Linda Livingston, the university president said in a joint statement. “Our hearts go out to Brittney and her family as they have endured months of separation, and we continue to pray as she recovers from this incredibly challenging time.”
Head coach Nikki Collen added: “After nearly ten months, we are thrilled and relieved to hear the long-awaited news of BG’s return,” she said. “Baylor family, she's coming home!”
State lawmakers were also quick to weigh in, with some praising the move and others criticizing the Biden administration’s negotiations.
“Brittney Griner free at last!! Welcome back Brittney, there’s no place like home for the holidays,” Congressman Al Green, a Democrat from Houston, said in a tweet.
Brittney Griner free at last!!
— Congressman Al Green (@RepAlGreen) December 8, 2022
Welcome back Brittney, there’s no place like home for the holidays.
U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, also a Houston Democrats, said: “Today is a great day to celebrate. Brittney Griner is free. She is a spouse, daughter, teammate and friend and to all of us she is also a fellow American who was held against her will, denied due process in a Russian court and sentenced to a labor camp.”
Jackson Lee also acknowledged that former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan – who remains imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges and wasn’t part of the deal – should be set free.
“Thanks to President Biden who made an extremely difficult decision to allow a prisoner exchange. I join with Paul Whalen and his family in continuing to seek his release,” she said.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, also praised Griner’s return and urged the administration to secure Whelan’s release.
“I'm glad to hear the Biden Administration has secured the release of Houston-native Brittney Griner, who has been wrongfully detained in Russia for nearly 10 months. I am eager for her to be safely reunited with her family on American soil,” he said in a tweet.
He added: “I am disappointed the Biden Admin failed to secure the release of additional U.S. citizens in the exchange. They must continue to press for the release of all Americans unjustly detained by our adversaries, including United States Marine Corps veterans Paul Whelan & Austin Tice.”
Tice is a former U.S. Marine and freelance journalist believed to have been kidnapped in Syria.
The Biden administration said it was still fighting for Whelan’s release but that Russia didn’t see Griner and Whelan in the same light.
“Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s,” Biden said Thursday morning. “And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”
Jackson Lee also said she was hopeful for Whelan’s return, Houston Public Media reported.
“I'm disappointed for Paul's family and how crushing this must be for them,” she said. “Negotiations like this sometimes nothing occurs [and] sometimes you can do something. So I'm just thankful for that this happened and once again, praying for the release of all our wrongfully detained citizens.”
Baylor officials added in their statement they were also hoping for a similar victory for Whelan and his family.
“While we celebrate Brittney’s release, our thoughts and prayers continue to go out to fellow American Paul Whelan and his family, as well as all Americans unjustly imprisoned overseas – that they will be freed and can return home safely and promptly,” Rhoades and Livingston said.