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Biden’s Hostage Diplomacy Was a Historic Mistake

The United States has broken with a long-standing precedent that was established for very good reasons.

By , a Central Asia fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Joe Biden meets Cherelle Griner about the release of Brittney Griner in the Oval Office of the White House on Dec. 8, 2022 in Washington.
Joe Biden meets Cherelle Griner about the release of Brittney Griner in the Oval Office of the White House on Dec. 8, 2022 in Washington.
Joe Biden meets Cherelle Griner about the release of Brittney Griner in the Oval Office of the White House on Dec. 8, 2022 in Washington. Adam Schultz/ The White House via Getty Images

Brittney Griner’s safe return to the United States on Dec. 9 after 294 days in Russian detention is cause for celebration. The end of such manifestly unjust treatment should always be welcomed. But the tragedy of her release is that it means there will likely be more Griners in the future, for the method of securing her release will make Americans abroad less safe. Joyous as the end may be, the means by which it was achieved were not justified.

To recap, Griner is among the most talented and successful professional women’s basketball players to play the sport. She was arrested on Feb. 17—just as Russian armor was revving up for the invasion of Ukraine that President Vladimir Putin launched a week later. She was in Russia to play her sixth season for basketball club UMMC Ekaterinburg, which she had previously led to five national and three European championships. Such offseason sojourns can be far more lucrative for the WNBA’s stars than its capped salaries. Upon arrival, however, Griner was allegedly found in possession of less than a gram of hashish oil. But her detention and subsequent sentencing to a nine-year jail sentence by a Russian court always had far more to do with international politics than her supposed crime.

The timing of her detention by Putin’s Kremlin made that clear, as did the nine-year sentence she received. Griner’s arrest bore hallmarks of another recent instance of attempted Russian hostage diplomacy. In April 2019, Naama Issachar, a U.S.-Israeli dual national, was detained after a small amount of cannabis was found in her luggage. She was swiftly sentenced to seven and a half years in jail. Moscow reportedly sought to use her as leverage to secure the release of Aleksei Burkov, a hacker and alleged cybercriminal awaiting extradition in Israel to the United States at the time. Burkov was extradited to the United States nonetheless. Ultimately, Putin agreed to pardon Issachar at the request of Israel’s then-and-now-again prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The only quid pro quo appears to have been agreeing to transfer a plot of land in Jerusalem’s Old City to a Russian Orthodox organization over a rival Germany-based Orthodox claimant.

Brittney Griner’s safe return to the United States on Dec. 9 after 294 days in Russian detention is cause for celebration. The end of such manifestly unjust treatment should always be welcomed. But the tragedy of her release is that it means there will likely be more Griners in the future, for the method of securing her release will make Americans abroad less safe. Joyous as the end may be, the means by which it was achieved were not justified.

To recap, Griner is among the most talented and successful professional women’s basketball players to play the sport. She was arrested on Feb. 17—just as Russian armor was revving up for the invasion of Ukraine that President Vladimir Putin launched a week later. She was in Russia to play her sixth season for basketball club UMMC Ekaterinburg, which she had previously led to five national and three European championships. Such offseason sojourns can be far more lucrative for the WNBA’s stars than its capped salaries. Upon arrival, however, Griner was allegedly found in possession of less than a gram of hashish oil. But her detention and subsequent sentencing to a nine-year jail sentence by a Russian court always had far more to do with international politics than her supposed crime.

The timing of her detention by Putin’s Kremlin made that clear, as did the nine-year sentence she received. Griner’s arrest bore hallmarks of another recent instance of attempted Russian hostage diplomacy. In April 2019, Naama Issachar, a U.S.-Israeli dual national, was detained after a small amount of cannabis was found in her luggage. She was swiftly sentenced to seven and a half years in jail. Moscow reportedly sought to use her as leverage to secure the release of Aleksei Burkov, a hacker and alleged cybercriminal awaiting extradition in Israel to the United States at the time. Burkov was extradited to the United States nonetheless. Ultimately, Putin agreed to pardon Issachar at the request of Israel’s then-and-now-again prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The only quid pro quo appears to have been agreeing to transfer a plot of land in Jerusalem’s Old City to a Russian Orthodox organization over a rival Germany-based Orthodox claimant.

The Kremlin set its sights higher with Griner’s detention. The Biden administration disastrously misplayed its hand by suggesting a swap this summer of both Griner and Paul Whelan, a U.S.-U.K.-Irish-Canadian quadruple national serving a 16-year espionage sentence, for Viktor Bout, a former Soviet military officer and convicted arms dealer who had been serving a 25-year sentence on charges of conspiracy to kill Americans and U.S. officials. Bout’s infamy was sufficient to be the basis of the 2005 Nicolas Cage epic, Lord of War, five years before his arrest. It presciently ends with Cage’s release in an apparent backroom deal.

Russia has sought Bout’s release ever since he was initially arrested in Thailand in 2010, having reportedly offered Bangkok cheap oil and fighter aircraft if it would refrain from sending him to the United States. Since his extradition, he has been atop the Kremlin’s wish list, with Moscow repeatedly suggesting including him in swaps.

The first error with the Biden administration’s offer was that it made clear the priority it placed on Griner’s freedom. But the far graver error was violating the principle of not offering a civilian with no security service or diplomatic link in exchange for a security actor. This violated the norms of spy-swap diplomacy and set a dangerous precedent that will reverberate through kidnap-for-ransom markets. Although Whelan’s family and the U.S. government deny that he had any intelligence affiliation, his background, private security work, increasingly frequent trips to Russia before his arrest, and friendship with Russian military and FSB officers would have made it at least appear to be a classic spy-swap. Whelan-for-Bout may have been a deal as imbalanced as Griner-for-Bout, but it would have been far less dangerous.

Kidnapping and hostage-taking may not appear logical at first, but Anja Shortland demonstrated in her 2019 book, Kidnap: Inside the Ransom Business, that it is governed by market principles. One can even get insurance. Shortland’s book explained how “ransom settlements set precedents which shape and constrain subsequent negotiations.” Successful innovations will be imitated. This applies both to increasing the risk of kidnapping and decreasing it.

A deal for two supposed spies or hostile security actors has plenty of precedent and thus would have little impact on the market. Whelan-for-Bout would have been a far safer trade than the one that was ultimately executed on Dec. 8, in which Griner was swapped for Bout. Although Whelan’s family has supported the Bout-Griner exchange, hopeful that it will set the ground for his release, it is likely to have the opposite effect. Most countries have largely sought to avoid swapping civilians for security actors for decades. The lesson of why appears to have been forgotten.

Palestine’s Black September terrorist organization infamously sought to swap prominent victims for the release of its political allies. Black September was the group behind the devastating 1972 Munich Olympics attack, in which it initially took the Israeli team hostage. That ended with 11 of the team members dead after a botched German effort to free them by force. A German police officer and five members of Black September were killed as well. But it was the aftermath of the attack that highlighted the dangers of agreeing to swapping civilians for security actors, in this case terrorists. Other members of Black September hijacked Lufthansa Flight 615 the following month and successfully negotiated the release of the three surviving gunmen behind the Olympics attack in exchange for its passengers and crew’s safe release.

The attack was the latest in the wave of such incidents. There were 159 hijackings of commercial flights in the United States alone between 1961 and 1972. A number of hijacked American and European flights were flown to Algeria, where the ruling FLN political party was happy to jointly seek monetary and political concessions. The skyjackings were almost entirely not targeted, with their civilian passengers effectively turned hostage at random. But the Munich massacre’s aftermath, with terrorists swapped for civilians, posed a grave new risk.

It was in 1973 that then-U.S. President Richard Nixon announced the policy of “do not negotiate with terrorists,” which was in response to Black September’s latest hostage-taking at the Saudi Embassy in Khartoum. The U.S. ambassador, deputy chief of mission, and Belgian charges d’affaires were taken hostage and tragically killed. A Jordanian diplomat in attendance, as well as the Saudi ambassador and his family, were not, and the terrorists failed to gain anything in exchange for them before surrendering. But while there have also been plenty of negotiations with terrorists since Nixon’s policy change, the legacy of Munich’s horrors broadly curtailed the offering of political concessions in exchange for civilian hostages.

West Germany’s Red Army Faction (RAF), a Marxist revolutionary organization with little qualms about terroristic tactics, in late 1977 abducted industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer. The RAF demanded the release of 11 of its comrades in exchange for his freedom. Bonn refused, even after the RAF’s allies in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked another Lufthansa flight in support of the RAF’s demand. But the German security response in this case was more effective, successfully rescuing the passengers in a raid at Mogadishu’s airport in Somalia. But after two RAF members were found dead in jail, the RAF killed Schleyer. The pair, however, had allegedly committed suicide—though a third imprisoned RAF member who supposedly attempted suicide as well but survived denies this—in response to the failed Lufthansa hijacking. Whether the RAF would have killed Schleyer were it not for their comrades’ deaths remains disputed to this day. But the fiasco did lead the RAF to stop seeking civilian hostages.

Others were still to use civilians as hostages, including hostile governments. Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein detained many of the passengers of British Airways Flight 149, which landed in Kuwait just hours after his 1990 invasion. They were released in trickles as part of Hussein’s ploy to delay an international response invasion but were all ultimately released when it was clear his strategy was failing.

Former North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il also abducted a number of Japanese and Korean citizens, including some rather prominent ones, but his intent was never to swap them but instead employ them in his propaganda machine. His sons and grandsons have since often detained American citizens to use as leverage for diplomatic engagement or to protect their own interests.

The Brazilian Marxist Carlos Marighella wrote in his 1969 Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla that “The kidnapping of personalities who are well-known artists, sports figures or who are outstanding in some other field, but who have evidenced no political interest, can be a useful form of propaganda for the guerrillas, provided it occurs under special circumstances, and is handled so the public understands and sympathizes with it.” Writing before the Munich attack, he did not opine on the righteousness of swapping them for fellow travelers. But Putin has already attempted to capitalize on his advice, turning Bout out for nationally broadcast interviews criticizing the West and trumpeting his freedom as a great victory for Russia. Bout was also quickly recruited to one of the most rabid Kremlin-controlled political parties. Other hostile states will be eager to follow his lead, especially if they only have to give up such low-value detainees as celebrities.

Iran has, like North Korea, repeatedly detained Western civilians, effectively kidnapping them. However, until now it has not sought to have its affiliated terrorists released in exchange for their freedom. Griner’s swap makes that a real risk.

The precedent will not just be noted by state hostage-takers. Mexican cartels will be within their rights—not their moral or legal ones, of course, but market-based ones—to wonder what kind of concessions they may be able to get for one of the famous U.S. athletes who frequently vacation in territory they control. Groups such as the Islamic State may demand the release of their members in exchange for Western detainees.

Griner’s swap for Bout has an outcome far worse than the propaganda victory it handed Putin. It has weakened U.S. national security and made the world a more dangerous place for Americans abroad.

Maximilian Hess is a Central Asia fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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