Brittney Griner and Russia’s Hostage Diplomacy

Recently, the American all-time best WNBA star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to carrying illegal cannabis oil for personal use in Russia, in a shocking development that could put the celebrity sportsman to prison for up to 10 years. She was arrested earlier just before the Kremlin’s February invasion of Ukraine, a timing widely seen as too convenient to be coincidental. In fact, Mrs. Griner is only the latest entry in the list of the reported thirteen American citizens held captive by the Russian Federation, according to the latest official data available.

The history of U.S. prisoners in Russia dates back at least to the Communist Revolution, and Western intervention in the subsequent Civil War in the country. After the Second World War, the alliance between the two nations turned into the bloodiest Cold War in history, during which time Moscow held captive hundreds, possibly thousands of captured American soldiers, spy pilots, as well as American citizens suspected of espionage. All in all, there are around 30,000 foreign nationals in Russian prisons today, thirteen of whom were American citizens according to the official data released in summer 2016.

Besides Brittney Griner, the two that have received most attention in domestic media are Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed. Mr. Whelan is a former U.S. Marine who, according to an NBC interview with his brother, enjoys travelling and was in Russia to attend a marriage. Records indicate that the Canadian-born American availed of the Rest and Recuperation Leave Program in 2007 for a similar visit to the country. He was charged with espionage and has allegedly faced cruel punishment and neglect in captivity.

Another former Marine, Mr. Trevor Reed was detained and eventually sentenced to nine years in 2020. The Texan 31-year old is accused of having assaulted a police officer under the influence of alcohol, something the defender denies to this day. His family have repeatedly called for the unconditional release of the young man, and the Biden administration apparently seems interested in a possible prisoner swap. So far, no formal negotiations have been undertaken to ensure his release.

Generally, however, the mainstream media in the United States has completely ignored the other ten-odd cases of Americans known to be held in Russian cells, perhaps because most of these do not appear to be political in nature. For instance, Ira D. Lang was detained in a remote city of Siberia for the production and distribution of child pornography. Similarly, Gennady Klotsman, an investment banker by profession, is believed to have planned and led the largest armed diamond heist in the history of Moscow. Joshua Aaron, wanted in the United States for cyber crimes, was confined to prison in Russia around fall 2016 for staying put with an expired visa. President Putin has expressed willingness to negotiate, especially given several prominent Russians imprisoned in the U.S. for years, but any such proper talks have yet to occur. This is now extremely unlikely, given the situation in Ukraine and the rapidly deteriorating West-Russia relations as a result.

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