Thursday, December 08, 2022

Uneven


This is exactly what President Joe Biden and the State Department wanted to hear:

Amid criticism of the Biden Administration for failure to secure the release of Paul Whelan when it traded convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout for Britney Griner, Whelan's brother has applauded the deal which, reportedly unavoidably, left the other high-profile captive of the Kremlin behind. His written statement included "The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn't going to happen.

In so doing, he emphasized the importance of bringing back to the USA political prisoners, of whom his brother is one. In supporting the "deal that was possible" rather than waiting for an unlikely one, he was encouraging the Administration to do the same for his brother. And "you got the release of a gay black basketball star and left my brother behind" probably would not have gone over very well.

Gaining buy-in (publicly, anyway) from the Whelan family, whose supporters on Twitter are incensed that the ex-Marine remains in Russian custody, was critical for the Administration. It gives it breathing room to continue negotiating for the release of Whelan, an outcome now made a little likelier, notwithstanding the Administration's significantly reduced leverage. Going into the 2024 election after securing the release of a basketball star while leaving behind an ex-Marine would not be good for Joe Biden's political health, nor that of his party.

The President, as well as his acolytes in traditional and social media, will contend that this is the best deal that could have been made. In his statement Thursday morning announcing the swap, Biden contended "This was not a choice of which Americans to bring home. Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul's case differently than Brittney's."

Tastefully, the President has chosen not to turn the deal into a victory lap, which would be unwarranted. And good thing, too, because asked in late May about speculation that convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout would be part of a bargain with the Kremlin

White House spokesman John Kirby told reporters Wednesday the focus was on getting Griner and Whelan home.

“We urge the Russians to move positively on that proposal, so we can get these two individuals home,” Kirby said. “The details of it, I think, are best left between us and our Russian counterparts.”

Saale said releasing Bout would send a message that detaining Americans can yield major concessions from the U.S. government. But the administration, he added, is stuck “between a rock and a hard place” at this stage. A prisoner swap of this sort is “probably one of the only ways they’re going to get [Griner and Whelan] out.”

Another former official who worked on international prisoner exchanges said the Russians have raised the issue of Bout’s release many times before, but such an exchange “has always been a hard no” from the U.S. Justice Department.


“I know Blinken is having discussions, but I can’t imagine Blinken agreeing to it,” said the former official, adding that “lower-level criminals” who are nearing the end of their sentences would be more likely candidates for an exchange. The former official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the ongoing case.


So make no mistake about it. The USA has gone in 6-7 months from the likelihood that the State Department would be unwilling to trade Viktor Bout for even two Americans, Griner and Whelan, to a deal in which the notorious criminal is exchanged for only one of the Americans.

Arguing that a deal is better than no deal, officials will applaud this outcome, as they will when an agreement eventually is reached for the release of Paul Whelan.  But given the terms reached this time with our adversary, the most reasonable conclusion is that we've been had.



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