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Welcome home Britney Griner
Prisoner swaps put into context
Today’s release of Britney Griner has sparked a lot of interest today and for good reason. Like most, I’m delighted for her, her family and others in her circle. I also understand the concern that others detained in foreign countries must feel, along with their family and friends. These situations are fraught with emotion but that also doesn’t mean to abdicate yourself from reason and common-sense. I’ll try to touch on some context to these situations today, briefly. Chores, appointments and phone calls have already taken over my first half of the day.
I will do my best to approach this topic kindly although it may also include some thoughts, based on common-sense and national security, that don’t adhere to everyone’s emotional perspectives.
Prisoner exchanges date to the beginning of warfare. Only now, with modern technology are they front and center to the attention of the masses. History matters. In all cases, the negotiations look more like those at your local flea market or negotiating the price of a used car. Everyone wants the “best deal.”
First and foremost, like most Americans, I resent thugs like Putin taking advantage of innocent, sometimes foolish or in worst cases, guilty, but badly mistreated American citizens imprisoned overseas. No matter what, I wish for all to come home safely, regardless of their guilt or innocence. This is by far, the primary objective of any administration, regardless of party. Now, let’s look at some of the issues surrounding these situations.
Every time these situations arise, especially in nations with exceedingly poor human rights records and who have a beef with US or the West in general, achieving freedom for these individuals, there is a cost to US national security. When it’s a thug nation like Putin’s Russia, Xi’s China, the Ayatollah’s Iran etc. the cost is typically high. Case-in-point, Viktor Bout, an infamous weapons trafficker whose activities have enabled the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, if not more, was a high ransom to pay for Britney’s release. In fact, her arrest was intended for precisely this type of trade, or for some similar trade. To leaders like Putin, humans only matter, relative to what value they hold for him.
This isn’t the first or last time that Russia or other similar nations will take this type of action in order to achieve some result he couldn’t achieve otherwise. When nations who are sanctioned by the international RBIO, rules-based-international order are under the pressure that Russia and Iran are now, the odds for something like her arrest to occur, are far higher.
Not all cases are the same. For example, Paul Whelan’s case is dramatically different than Britney’s, whether we like it or not. Ms. Griner is a person with a fairly high public profile. Intentionally or accidently, she is accused of and has admitted to bringing a forbidden substance into Russia. Otherwise, like countless other Americans working in Russia, she should have been familiar with rules, policies and laws.
Paul Whelan for example, was, at the time of his arrest in Russia, not a high-profile individual and had a less than stellar background. Besides, holding security positions in companies, being a former Marine (less than honorably discharged) and a former law enforcement officer should have given him pause to be exceedingly cautious or not go to Russia during heightened tensions.
In both cases, either by error of actions or errors in judgement, played a role in their arrests. Those errors cost all of us as well as all of those nations brutally victimized by Viktor Bout’s weapon sales.
When exchanging prisoners in these high profile, single prisoner exchanges, the value of the prisoners to a nation, their security or their people matter. Look at major sports and their player trades as a guide. A star player must either be traded for another of the same or similar value or somehow, the team with the lesser value player must offer other valuable assets to the trade if they wish to make a deal. Sometimes these are, money in addition to the player, future draft choices etc.
It comes down to how badly we want someone back and/ or, whether the trade is somehow fairly equitable. The US has a long history of doing more or paying more, to recover our citizens. We tend to put a higher value on a citizen’s life than do those we are often forced to trade with. There are exceptions though. Some of those cannot be discussed for classified reasons or, sometimes the nation we’re bargaining with simply won’t be reasonable.
There are some really great materials available on all of these topics and more. It’s worth doing some homework on them. The one thing that we absolutely NOT DO, is to make this political. These negotiations are handled by professionals or well-informed professionals in support of the negotiators. The cases of Marina Butina, the now infamous Russian agent manipulating the NRA and Specialist Bergdahl were both shamelessly politicized. This not only aids the opposition because it makes them understand how much leverage they have but also creates and exploits rifts in US society for political purposes. Please do not contribute to the already too high cost by further exacerbating the situation at home.
As a nation, we must break the poor habits we’ve acquired over the past few years where we make everything political. This also advantages nations like Russia whose intentions for the past 70+ years has been to create or exploit existing fractures in our society in order to give them strategic advantage. This my friends, is precisely national security. We can deprive thugs like Putin his advantage, by remaining unified about our national security and our actual national values.
When we visit, work or otherwise visit authoritarian nations, struggling to get along with the US and/ or our allies, we must do all in our power to be well-informed and extra careful in how we go about it. Intentional or unintentional errors end up costing everyone, not just those incarcerated.
In the meantime, welcome home Britney and everyone, please keep Paul Whelan and others in your thoughts and prayers. They are our fellow citizens. Even though Bergdahl cost us, he did have to deal with justice when he came home. This choice should indeed be up to us, not to brutal, selfish leaders like Putin.