This week, Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges in a Moscow court after several months of pre-trial detention. The admission gives legitimacy to President Putin’s view that this fell short of being a hostage case as President Biden had touted. That carries the full embarrassment of an unforced error.
But what is next for Griner?
Her admission of guilt in Russian court feels like a timeout in a lopsided basketball game. What is Coach Vlad plotting to do? Run out the clock to bank a quick win and send home the defeated to relay a cautionary tale to a humiliated America? Or keep bringing the heat until he gets something like a Russian spy goon out of U.S. prison?
Call it July Madness.
Subtle White House handling might have averted this. Biden too soon brought in his Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, a big deal.
There have been only a dozen or so Special Presidential Envoys of any sort in American history. This one has a gut-wrenching caseload of truly exploited victims leveraged against U.S. foreign policy interests. (In full disclosure, I served in this role 2019-2020.)
Biden over-hyped Griner by taking this unfortunate consular matter to hostage dimensions before its time, that is, before a court hearing in this case on which to base the next moves.
So, why did he so quickly put this in the brightest lights? It appears that he wanted another feel-good hostage outcome on the heels of hostage Trevor Reed’s release from Russia in April.
Who wouldn’t? But then again, the hostage must come first, not the polling.
And, yes, there was understandable public pressure for action, but this was an unforced error.
Normally, one first exhausts subtler approaches meant to keep the stakes where they are and to save face. For example, with UCLA basketball players locked up harshly in China for shoplifting in 2017, President Trump kept the bureaucracy out of it and deftly called in a favor to President Xi. It worked.
This time, Biden passed it too soon to his hostage bureaucracy to jumpstart a success and in this haste crossed the cables and sparked bigger problems. This could be Biden’s Carter-era hostage headache to the end of his term.
It all depends on Coach Vlad’s gameplan.
Worse is that Biden's call subjugated the Envoy’s office to short-term political goals. This weakens its moral suasion and credibility as a humanitarian-based resource for the many hostage cases it is trying to resolve.
Griner’s admission now raises an embarrassment on us that Putin will seize. Under Russian law, he now has a guilty party as bargaining power for some advantage against U.S. foreign policy interests.
If Putin goes too hard on that full court press, then is when Biden’s senior hostage negotiators need to show.
And what of Ms. Griner? Whether on the bench or on the floor, she herself cannot call this game. One hopes that the White House can channel her skills to find the openings and to keep bringing it until it brings her home.
Hugh Dugan served as Acting Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs and Senior Director for International Organization Affairs in the National Security Council after having advised 11 U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations since 1989. Read Hugh Dugan's Reports — More Here.
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