When a Prisoner Swap Is a Rorschach-Test

As I grew up in the 1980s, my image of a prisoner swap was the old one from the Cold War: Two men, agents caught by the enemy, standing on opposite ends of a bridge in Berlin. The American and Soviet officials who surround them have done this all before. Tensely, slowly, the men cross the bridge — there’s always a glance at the middle — and then agents go home.

Yet what happened yesterday on the tarmac with Brittney Griner and Viktor Bout was no Bridge of Spies. The ritual was the same, but the players weren’t. On one side, there was Griner, a young, female basketball player. Her conviction was for carrying a small amount of hash oil. On the other side was Bout, an arms dealer who spent decades fueling wars by selling weapons he smuggled out of the former Soviet Union. He was convicted in a sting operation where he believed he was making a deadly deal with Colombian rebels.

Was it a fair trade? Certainly not. But what this prisoner swap underscored to me was where the two countries have landed in the decades since the Cold War. A prisoner swap as a kind of Rorschach-test:

Russia wanted back an arms dealer.

The U.S. wanted back a young, gay, Black athlete, beloved by her fans, who may sometimes smoke weed and has lots of tattoos.

Griner would have been impossible to imagine as a celebrity at the height of the Cold War. Now she speaks to a social change taking place in the U.S. — one some don’t want to see — where divisions certainly remain sharp but where many of us don’t see gender, race and sexuality differences as something new anymore, but as just an ordinary part of being American. What I loved about Griner was just how normal she was in some ways. Here she talks about growing up on a cul-de-sac in Houston and eating Lunchables.

Long before he invaded Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin of Russia closely watched the changes afoot in American society and sought to exploit them. The Kremlin took pleasure in commenting on George Floyd’s killing as protests engulfed the U.S.; it created fake Black Lives Matter accounts to depress Black turnout in 2016.

The Release of Brittney Griner

The American basketball star had been detained in Russia since February on charges of smuggling hashish oil into the country.

  • Anxiety Turns to Relief: Brittney Griner’s supporters watched with dismay as her situation appeared to worsen over the summer. Now they are celebrating her release.
  • The Russian Playbook: By detaining Ms. Griner, the Kremlin weaponized pain to get the United States to turn over a convicted arms dealer. Can the same tactic work in the war in Ukraine?
  • A Test for Women’s Sports: The release was a victory for W.N.B.A. players and fans, who pushed furiously for it. But the athlete’s plight also highlighted gender inequities in sports.

Turning Griner into a wartime bargaining chip seemed like another Putin chess move, a way to sow division in the United States and see whether America’s white president would negotiate for a Black woman hostage.

But as Griner’s case slowly ground through the Russian judicial system, the response in the United States was largely supportive of her. There were persistent, but sober calls from her family to free her, and the “Free BG” shirts during the NBA finals in June. Yet “BG” wasn’t exploited politically the way mask mandates or Critical Race Theory were. You never know what sets Americans off these days — and this was an America I didn’t expect.

Then came Joe Biden’s address yesterday afternoon announcing her release. After Biden left the stage, Griner’s wife, Cherelle, took the podium. Not so long ago, that would have been remarkable. But on the other side of the capital, a bipartisan vote took place that same day enshrining their marriage in federal law.

Cherelle Griner spoke during a press conference held by Joe Biden at the White House on Thursday.Credit…Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

That America rallied around Griner would hardly have angered Putin; he probably relished it. The Kremlin broadcast the prisoner swap to the world, eager to show Russia and the United States as equal powers, trading human bargaining chips, even as the exchange reinforced Putin’s narrative, in which America is a godless nation, compared to his Russia, where there are consequences for using drugs or daring to be gay. Russia still has Paul Whelan, an American corporate security executive, who has been jailed longer than Griner — and whom Republicans said Biden should also have released.

The American narrative, of course, is about pluralism. Griner “represents the best America — the best about America,” Biden said yesterday at the White House. But another way in which this swap differs from those of the original Cold War is that both nations find themselves diminished, in different ways.

Growing up at the end of the Cold War, it felt to me not just like America had won, but Russia had truly lost. We watched an attempted coup against Russian President Boris Yeltsin. We watched as life expectancy in Russia began to fall and the proud Soviet state was sold off to a system of oligarchs. But more recently, we’ve seen life expectancy in the U.S. fall, too — as it did last year, and the year before. We’ve seen an American version of a coup attempt, and a former president who still refuses to accept the results of an election he lost. And we would watch a group of billionaires sweep up wealth in the 2010s and 2020s not so unlike how the oligarchs did in the 1990s.

This morning, Griner’s plane landed in San Antonio, ending her 10-month ordeal. Until yesterday, it was conceivable she would spend years in a Russian penal colony. Now she may be back on the court with the W.N.B.A. We’ll see. That certainly gives me more hope than the thought of Bout possibly heading back to the arms trade.

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