This week, the U.S. announced that it has made what it calls a substantial offer to Russia: a deal to win the return of Texan and WNBA basketball star Brittney Griner and a former Marine held on spy charges, Paul Whelan, in exchange for a Russian prisoner being held in the U.S.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Friday he was open to a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to discuss the prisoner swap proposal that would involve the U.S. releasing Viktor Bout, a dangerous Russian arms dealer, early from prison.
William Inboden, executive director and William Powers, Jr. chair at the University of Texas at Austin’s Clements Center for National Security, said he wants the Americans to come home but expressed concerns that the reported prisoner exchange proposal seems disproportionate.
“It’s a sign of the Putin regime’s wickedness and depravity that they would, you know, take these two Americans under such false pretenses in the first place. Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan are innocent of, you know, any serious charges, whereas Viktor Bout is a wicked man,” Inboden said. “He has the blood of thousands of innocent people on his hands. He’s provided arms to just about every bad government and bad terrorist group out there. And he was doing it at least with some private cooperation from Russian intelligence service.”
Inboden said he worries the prisoner swap could incentivize more hostage-taking, not just in Russia.
“If we get Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan back, what’s to stop not just Putin, but Xi Jinping or the Kim regime in North Korea or the Iranian regime, all of whom have also been engaged in this hostage diplomacy of arresting innocent Americans?” he said.
If the deal does go through, Russian President Vladimir Putin would see it as a win, Inboden said.
“Putin likes to look for ways to embarrass and humiliate the United States and our Western allies and make us look weak. And I think he knows that this is a disproportionate trade,” he said. “He knows that he would be, you know, getting back a much worse person in Viktor Bout.
(And) this does come when the Russia-Ukraine war is at a real crossroads, you know, seems to be something of a stalemate. But we’re seeing some signs that the Ukrainians might be able to gain the upper hand with it with a counteroffensive here and even regain some of their territory. We’re seeing some signs of Russia weakening. So, you know, this may also be an effort by Putin to change the narrative there.”
Inboden also urged Americans to take seriously travel warnings from the State Department, which in January said no Americans should travel to Russia.
“Unfortunately, Brittney Griner traveled there about a month later to play for her basketball team. You know, that obviously put her at risk,” he said. “But in some ways, it’s put her country’s interests at risk, too. So I absolutely want to see her home, but it’s just a good reminder to take those travel warnings seriously: If our government says don’t travel to a country, then don’t travel to that country.”