In the weeks before taking our Christmas break, we noticed a lot of new, yet familiar, posts and memes on social media.
These posts, seemingly tailor-made to court controversy, were iterations on a basic theme – Brittney Griner did not deserve to be released from a Russian jail, and Paul Whelan did. Some suggested that the Biden administration had chosen to prioritize Griner over Whelan. Others took a “she did the crime, she should do the time” stance. A few of the posts were in the posters’ own words, but most were memes from anonymous sources and partisan social media profiles.
While there were a few from the opposite end of the spectrum, most of them either demonized Griner, blamed her for Viktor Bout’s early release, or blamed her for the Biden administration not holding out for Whelan’s release as well.
All this despite the fact that Whelan’s family had no criticism of the exchange or of Griner, and that Griner herself has vociferously called for continued efforts to release Whelan.
One of the criticisms has been that Bout, an infamous arms dealer sometimes nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” was a more valuable asset to the Russians than Griner, an Olympic gold medalist and professional basketball player, was to the United States. They argued that Bout could cause more.
Strategically, they are probably right. Bout, who was convicted in 2011 of conspiring to kill American citizens, after a 2008 arrest by Interpol, had served 14 years of his 25 year sentence. But the arms dealer was due to be released in just six more years, in August of 2029.
While Bout is undoubtedly a more dangerous individual than Griner, who was convicted of possessing less than one gram of cannabis oil, he was due to be released in another six years. Griner, meanwhile, had been sentenced to 16 years in Russian jail for her offense.
I’m not here to discuss whether this was a lopsided trade or not. (It obviously was.)
I’m also not here to discuss whether Bout deserved to stay in jail for the remainder of his sentence. (He did.)
I’m not here to discuss if the Russian penalties for cannabis oil are inflated. (By American standards, they obviously are.)
I’m here to discuss how Vladimir Putin has once again masterfully fomented division in the American public.
We can’t forget that, before he was President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin was a foreign intelligence officer in the KGB. While that Soviet era organization may be defunct, the lessons Putin learned as an officer have not gone to waste.
The Soviet – sorry – the Russian president knew when he proposed this exchange that there was no winning for President Joe Biden. Putin was never going to trade someone as allegedly valuable as Whelan, who was jailed in 2018 on charges of espionage, for someone like Bout, who was due to be released in another six years anyway.
What the former KGB operative would do, however, was offer to release someone else arrested on trumped up charges – someone like an athlete working in the country – for a Russian asset like Bout who had already been used as a propaganda tool within the country since his arrest. If Putin had been interested in negotiating for Whelan’s release, he could have done so four years ago.
No, instead Putin kept Whelan imprisoned, knowing that he might be able to use him in a situation like this – an incarceration triangle if you will – to get Americans arguing amongst themselves and doing his work of sowing division and discord for him.
Putin was not going to give up Whelan. But Griner they could get if they tried. And Biden, as we noted, was in a no-win situation no matter what he chose.
If he passed on the deal, and left both Griner and Whelan in jail, he would have been criticized for letting two Americans rot in Russian prisons while we held onto a man due to be released in a few years anyway.
If he accepted the deal for Griner, Putin knew we were going to see exactly what we’ve seen; criticism over the lopsided value of the assets traded.
Politically there was no winning move for the Biden administration. What they did have, however, was a move that brought an American home; even if it brought its own criticism and political costs. It was an impossible move to make. It’s one that the Biden administration surely didn’t see coming back in February.
But you can bet a political chess master like Vladimir Putin absolutely saw this as a possibility five moves out. He knew what he was doing. We can be sure of that.