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U.S.-Russia Prisoner Swap Looks Uncertain

As Brittney Griner returns to court, is Washington any closer to securing her release?

By , a senior editor at Foreign Policy.
U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner arrives for a hearing.
U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner arrives for a hearing.
U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner arrives for a hearing at the Khimki Court outside Moscow on July 27. KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: WNBA star Brittney Griner returns to a Russian court amid increased diplomacy, a U.S. drone strike kills al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is expected to arrive in Taiwan. I’m filling in for Colm Quinn, who has the day off.

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Griner Returns to Court in Russia

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: WNBA star Brittney Griner returns to a Russian court amid increased diplomacy, a U.S. drone strike kills al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is expected to arrive in Taiwan. I’m filling in for Colm Quinn, who has the day off.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Griner Returns to Court in Russia

As U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner returns to a Russian court today, her fate hangs on shaky high-level diplomacy between Washington and Moscow. Griner was arrested on drug charges on Feb. 17, a week before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began. Her trial began on July 1 and is expected to end this week; she has pleaded guilty to the charges, which could carry a 10-year prison sentence.

A lawyer for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout said Monday that he feels “confident” that a proposed prisoner exchange swapping his client for Griner and another U.S. citizen serving a prison sentence in Russia for espionage, former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, will pan out. But any potential deal is far from done: CNN reports that Russia has asked that the swap include a second Russian, Vadim Krasikov, a former spy currently serving a sentence in Germany for a murder conviction.

Moscow’s request casts doubt on the discussions so far. U.S. officials have called it a “bad faith attempt” to avoid a serious proposal from Washington. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week that the United States had made a “substantial offer” to push Moscow to release Griner and Whelan, declining to provide details. A source told CNN that the United States was willing to involve Bout in an exchange.

Blinken spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last Friday—the highest-level known contact between the two countries since Russia invaded Ukraine—with Lavrov urging his U.S. counterpart to return to “quiet diplomacy” when it comes to prisoner swaps. However, Griner’s case has already attracted significant attention in the United States—and Whelan’s family has fought for his release for three years, dating back to the Trump administration.

There are indications that Bout—who is accused of selling weapons to combatants in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East and was arrested in a drug sting in 2008—could be a crucial prize for Russian officials. That could be because he allegedly has links to Russia’s military intelligence agency (known as the GRU), as the Washington Post reports. But Russia still might not see Bout as worth a two-for-one deal. If not Krasikov, Moscow may seek another prisoner in an exchange.

More than anything, the uncertainty of the discussions between Washington and Moscow reflects the growing distrust between the two governments in the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine—which makes Griner an unfortunate pawn in a delicate diplomatic game. The Biden administration remains quiet, but it remains her best hope as she faces a potential verdict.


What We’re Following Today

Al Qaeda leader killed in U.S. strike. A U.S. drone strike killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul over the weekend, U.S. President Joe Biden announced on Monday in an address from the White House. The early-morning strike concluded a 21-year global manhunt and marks the end of an era for the jihadi organization.

“Now, justice has been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more,” Biden said. “No matter how long it takes, no matter where you hide, if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out.”

Zawahiri founded al Qaeda with Osama bin Laden in 1988 and took over the organization after bin Laden’s death in 2011. “Al Qaeda stagnated during Zawahiri’s leadership,” Middle East expert Daniel Byman writes in an obituary for FP. “Zawahiri’s most enduring legacy may be the roles he played as an ideologue and organizer, promoting and spreading jihadi revolution and terror.”

Pelosi’s Taiwan trip goes ahead. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was set to arrive in Taiwan on Tuesday amid aggressive rhetoric from Beijing and some fear in Washington that the visit could spark a new political crisis between the two countries. China warned that it would not “sit idly by” if Pelosi traveled to Taiwan during a trip to the region. Neither the Taiwanese foreign ministry nor the White House had confirmed the visit on Monday.

The Financial Times reported that Pelosi would meet Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on Wednesday. In 1997, Newt Gingrich was the last House speaker to visit the self-ruled island, but China has since grown more assertive on Taiwan. Although Democrats have also become more hawkish on China, some within the party “expressed doubts that a visit could be needlessly escalatory,” FP’s Amy Mackinnon, Jack Detsch, and Robbie Gramer report.

Experts say that Pelosi’s trip is unlikely to spark a military crisis. Nonetheless, Beijing has intensified drills in the South China Sea and said there would be more exercises from Tuesday through Saturday. China marked the 95th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army on Monday.


Keep an Eye On

Germany’s energy crunch. Russia’s latest cuts in natural gas supply to Germany are fueling a debate over the country’s plans to shut down its three last nuclear power plants. In June, FPs Allison Meakem examined the deep political and historical roots of the controversy.

The German opposition Union bloc has intensified its demands to at least extend the plants’ lives through 2024 and avoid carbon emissions, but it faces disagreement from the Social Democrats and the Greens. Meanwhile, Germany has joined other European countries in restarting old coal plants to ditch Russian energy.

In FP, climate and energy expert Noah Gordon argues that Europe already needs more aggressive state action to reach its climate goals.

Extreme weather. Natural disasters and extreme weather have continued around the globe this week. In Kentucky, at least 37 people are dead after major floods last week, with more rain coming down. Back-to-back cold fronts in Australia are expected to bring dangerous storms to several states, weeks after a flood crisis. And parts of Europe are bracing for another heat wave.

FP’s Christina Lu and Anusha Rathi report on how this year’s heat and drought are threatening some of the Mediterranean’s most attractive tourist destinations.


Odds and Ends

South Korea’s parliament is currently debating a bill that would shorten mandatory military service for K-pop stars, but Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup suggested on Monday that the globally renowned boy band BTS could keep performing no matter what—including if they complete the full two years of duty. “Even if they join the military, there would be a way to give them a chance to practice and perform together if there are scheduled concerts abroad,” Lee said.

Compulsory military service for men between ages 18 and 28 is controversial in South Korea, and the uncertainty of the legislative debate has caused some BTS members stress, according to the band’s management. An exemption already allows K-pop stars to defer their service until the age of 30; the oldest member of the band turns 30 next year.

Audrey Wilson is a senior editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @audreybwilson

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