During the Cold War, which lasted for nearly half a century following the end of World War II, the small number of prisoner exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union were deadly serious affairs. Not so much now.
Today, 31 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, there is a potential prisoner swap much in the news that bears no resemblance to the serious manner by which such exchanges took place in the past.
In Russia’s corner, you have professional American female basketball player Brittney Griner, who recently pled guilty to the charge of bringing hashish oil into Russia. As a result of her plea, the six-foot, nine-inch player is serving a nine-year sentence in a Russian penal colony.
In our corner is Russian citizen Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer who, in 2011, was convicted in federal court of conspiring to kill Americans, and is mid-way through his 25-year sentence.
In a bizarre twist to the widely publicized potential swap, former NBA star Dennis Rodman this week interjected himself into the thick of it.
During the Cold War, such exchanges were taken most seriously at the highest levels in both Washington and Moscow, involving as they almost always did, clandestine espionage activities between the two superpowers. This was the case in the first and most famous of all spy-for-spy swaps — the 1962 deal that returned CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers to America from a Soviet prison and sent convicted Soviet master spy Rudolf Abel from a federal penitentiary to retirement in his native Russia.
Negotiations for the Powers-Abel exchange, and the several other swaps that followed over the next several decades, were hush-hush affairs, in keeping with the serious nature of the underlying subject matter.
In contrast, the Griner affair is being orchestrated by the Biden Administration in the full glare of media spotlight. The publicity that continues to surround these discussions may simply reflect the reality that in the Internet Age it is far more difficult than in decades past to maintain the confidentiality of high-level government negotiations. It is, however, more than that.
The way this administration has chosen to conduct the negotiations about a potential prisoner swap with Putin’s government, reflects the skewed priorities underlying the Biden Administration’s decision-making.
Unlike earlier prisoner exchanges, this one has nothing to do with national security, at least in any way that would benefit the U.S. It has everything to do with Biden seeking to score political points with key Democrat interest groups here at home. Official statements from administration officials, including Biden himself, however, would have observers around the globe conclude there is nothing more important to the United States of America than ensuring that Griner is free to come home.
Biden himself, his Secretary of State, and other officials inside our government, repeatedly have denounced as wrong and utterly unacceptable Russia’s decisions to charge and then sentence Griner to jail following her guilty plea. In fact, to our government, there is “no higher priority” in our relations with Russia than freeing Griner.
While Ms. Griner is an unquestionably excellent basketball player, having the president of the United States publicly declare her confinement and release to be a matter of the absolute highest importance to our government, is absurd. The statement does, however, bring into sharp focus the priorities of this administration.
These credibility issues become even more serious concerns when considering that, in exchange for Griner’s release, the U.S. would be freeing Viktor Bout, a notorious and truly dangerous individual known for good reason as the “merchant of death.”
The glaringly obvious inequality between the two main beneficiaries of the swap under consideration leads to one of only three conclusions: (1) the administration truly believes Griner is that important; (2) there is far more to the story than meets the eye (a second U.S. citizen in Russian custody, Paul Whelan, reportedly is being included as a side bet to Griner’s release); or (3) the Biden Administration is simply being played for a sucker.
Given last year’s debacle in Afghanistan, and the way Communist China is flexing its muscles and intimidating Biden’s own military leaders, I leave it to the reader to decide which is the more likely scenario.
Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He served as the United States Attorney in Atlanta from 1986 to 1990 and was an official with the CIA in the 1970s. He now practices law in Atlanta, Georgia and serves as head of Liberty Guard.