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What the Brittney Griner prisoner swap says about Russia-U.S. relations


WNBA star Brittney Griner is back in the U.S. following months of detention in Russia on trumped-up drug charges That came after nine months of tense negotiations that led to Griner's release in exchange for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. As you might imagine, Griner's family and supporters are ecstatic with her release, although other Americans considered unjustly detained remain in Russian hands.

But that made us wonder if this mutual effort between the world's two largest nuclear powers shows the possibilities of diplomacy, most especially if it demonstrates that a peace deal could be negotiated between Russia and Ukraine. For that, we've called someone who's been at the negotiating table with Russia before. That's former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, and he's with us now. Ambassador, thanks so much for joining us.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Sure. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Before we kind of get into the next part of the conversation, I just did want to ask you what you made of the deal itself, trading Brittney Griner for Viktor Bout. You were on this program a few months ago, and you said trading Viktor Bout for detained Americans was a trade that you'd support, but you hoped it would also include others who were being held. That's Paul Whelan and Marc Fogel. Just what are your top-line thoughts about this?

MCFAUL: Well, of course, could we have gotten three innocent Americans out for one true criminal? That would have been a much better deal. And I still hope that Paul Whelan and Marc Fogel will not be forgotten and that there'll be other deals to be considered. But, you know, diplomacy - and other negotiations are like that as well, but especially diplomacy with the Russians - you work it hard. You try your best to get the best deal, and you get to a point where you know there's no more movement. And then you have to decide, am I going to take the deal on the table or walk away? I had to do that on behalf of our government many times. And sometimes we walked away, by the way. In this moment, that's what the Biden administration did, and I think it was the right call to take the deal on the table.

MARTIN: So the Griner deal was the second release of an American prisoner from Russian custody this year. Does that say anything to you?

MCFAUL: It does. It suggests to me that we might be able to do future deals. That is, the precedent has been set. And remember, you know, there's lots of controversy about whether one should be negotiating to free hostages. That's a debate that goes back many decades in our country. But the Biden administration has chosen to do this. They now have two successful swaps, and that suggests there might be the possibility for more in the future.

MARTIN: As a person who's been in the thick of these kinds of negotiations, you know, Russia detains a high-profile American sports star who happens to also be a sports star in Russia.


MARTIN: And they get an arms dealer known as the Merchant of Death in return. And then they continue to hold two people. I mean, Marc Fogel, for example, is a teacher. You know, he's a teacher. So how do we understand this? As you can imagine, that there are some people who don't - this isn't sitting well with some. They feel that - well, you can understand why this is not sitting well with some people.

MCFAUL: And it doesn't sit well with me, either. This is a hard call. The problem that I think people have to understand is there isn't rule of law in Russia. There is no democracy there. There's no public pressure to free Viktor Bout in the same way there was public pressure on the Biden administration to free Brittney Griner. And second, Putin's not sentimental about anything. He doesn't care about the lives of people. He's perfectly happy to push the hardest deal that he can, and that gives him a lot of leverage. So nobody should be surprised that it's - would be easy to get a beneficial deal with Vladimir Putin.

MARTIN: One of the things we're hoping you can help us think about is what this could tell us about how a peace deal could possibly be secured. I mean, does the fact that the U.S. and Russia were able to negotiate this give you any optimism that the U.S. could broker some kind of negotiation between Russia and Ukraine, that the U.S. could be a helpful player here, No. 1, or, No. 2, that a deal could be brokered at all?

MCFAUL: Honestly, not really. I don't think this deal - which, again, I think was a good deal, and I'm glad for - that Brittney Griner is free, and I think it's good for America that she's free. But I don't think that creates any momentum on other issues in U.S.-Russia relations or Russia-Ukrainian relations. This is siloed. This is not linked to those things. And tragically, I just don't see Putin in a position yet to begin to seriously think about negotiations. Remember, he doubled down last fall when he declared on a piece of paper that four regions of Ukraine are now part of Russia. He doesn't even control that territory, by the way. But he declared in a Kremlin ceremony and then celebrated on Red Square that Russia has expanded its territory. And until he can no longer pursue that outcome, until his army is completely exhausted and his economy is broken, I predict he will continue to do it.

MARTIN: The New York Times reporting around the swap characterizes it this way. It says Putin wants to prosecute his war in Ukraine in the same way he secured the freedom of a major Russian arms dealer - inflict so much pain on Western governments that eventually, they make a deal. Does that sound right?

MCFAUL: Well, yes and no. I think pain is something he's not afraid to do and that he is terrorizing Ukrainian noncombatants. In my opinion, that makes Russia a sponsor of state terrorism, underscores that he doesn't care about rules. He doesn't care about the rules of war. He doesn't care about the rules of treatment of prisoners, and he'll arrest people that criticize him. That said, that means that you have to give the Ukrainians the ability to push back and inflict pain on Putin and his army.

I say that tragically. I want to be clear. I'm not suggesting war is the only path. But wars tend to end in two ways. Either one side wins, and they dictate the terms of the peace, or there's a stalemate on the battlefield when neither side can advance their interests through military means, and then they pivot towards diplomacy. And I think we need to give the Ukrainians the ability to stop Putin on the battlefield so that that then creates the permissive conditions for a peaceful negotiation.

MARTIN: So before you go, as a person who lived in Russia for many years as the ambassador and many trips, do you have any sense of how this prisoner swap will be viewed or is being viewed by Russians?

MCFAUL: Well, Putin and his propaganda machine are talking about it as a fantastic win. Remember, Viktor Bout is not just the way we describe him as a criminal, but he is also described as somebody who is advancing Soviet and Russian national security interests. So Putin is celebrating it, and I think the majority of Russians, because the majority support Putin, will see this as a giant victory for Russian diplomacy.

MARTIN: That is former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. Ambassador McFaul is now the director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. Ambassador, thank you so much for these insights once again.

MCFAUL: Yeah. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Mia Estrada
Mia Estrada is a 2021-2022 Kroc Fellow. She will spend the year rotating through different parts of NPR, including the Culture Desk, National Desk and Weekend Edition.
Natalie Winston is the Executive Producer of All Things Considered on the weekends. She has led the show through coverage of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and many other breaking news events. She also led a remote team for a weekend of coverage from Puerto Rico at the start of the 2018 hurricane season.