It seems that Russia’s persistent obsession with punishing drug offenders has its limits. On Wednesday morning, Russia released a US citizen and former Marine, Trevor Reed, as part of a prisoner swap. In July 2020, Reed was sentenced to almost nine years in prison after an altercation with Russian police officers.
During Brittney Griner’s omission on the news of a prisoner swap may sound disappointing to its supporters, it’s not all bad. It provides a glimmer of hope. The federal government’s financial sanctions on Russia’s economy and the withdrawal of American companies from the country previously indicated that diplomatic windows were slamming shut and Griner was stuck on the other side. Reed’s release shows that Russia is still willing to give something in return.
Russia didn’t give up on Reed out of kindness. In exchange for Reed, the US traded Russian citizen Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2011 for smuggling large amounts of cocaine.
These types of exchanges were routinely conducted during the Cold War, but if a trade comes at a time when tensions between Russia and the western world are so high, it could signal Griner’s family — and lawyers — to maintain the full gamut. Court pressure on Biden administration to secure her return.
Like Griner, the high standing of Reed, a former Marine, effectively made him a political prisoner since his arrest in 2018. Griner’s public identity as the pre-eminent Black American lesbian professional athlete made her an easy target for Moscow. Two years ago, Vladimir Zherebenkov, the attorney for 50-year-old Marine Paul Whelan, identified at least two prisoners the Russian government would be interested in exchanging. One was Yaroshenko who was traded for Reed and another was Viktor Bout. Bout was the inspiration for Nicholas Cage’s character as a gun smuggler in Lord of War.
Ultimately, Russia got a valuable prisoner out of the United States, but the cost of exchanging some Russians convicted of nonviolent crimes, who have more value as assets, for political prisoners is minimal. The Biden administration should offer Bout and any other Russians they are willing to release for Griner and Whelan. Our prisons are overcrowded anyway.
Russia’s willingness to take a drug smuggler is a positive for Griner, who is currently facing drug charges. The crime she is accused of – bringing a marijuana vape pen on her flight – is much less serious compared to those that led to Whelan and Reed’s lengthy prison sentences.
Griner faces a May 18 court date, and the US State Department has advised the WNBA and Griner’s family to continue negotiations for a possible release fell silent hoping that the Kremlin will not cool down the process with a show of political magnanimity. When the US and Russian governments are willing to exchange, they have demonstrated their ability to expedite the exchange. It took two years to complete the swap between Reed and Yaroshenko, but Russia has signaled its demands since the Trump administration. Where there is a will, there’s a way. The road to securing Griner’s freedom won’t be easy, but the eagerness to strike a deal offers a glimmer of hope.