The exchange of Russian businessman Viktor Bout for US basketball player Brittney Griner in a prisoner swap has been largely seen as a one-sided win for Moscow, and is thus unlikely to play a significant role in promoting strategic stability dialogue between the two countries, experts told Sputnik.
Last Thursday, Moscow exchanged Griner, sentenced in 2022 to nine years in jail for illegally bringing cannabis oil to Russia, for Bout, sentenced in 2012 to 25 years in a US prison on charges of conspiring to murder US citizens, export anti-aircraft missiles and financially support terrorism. US Marine Paul Whelan, sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in Russia for spying, was not included in the final deal despite his candidacy being discussed during the initial talks.
“I doubt that the Griner-Bout exchange will lead to any real movement on the diplomatic front, other than some possible exchange in the future regarding Whelan. As long as the war in Ukraine continues there is no chance of any meaningful agreements between the US and Russia on anything,” Roderick Kiewiet, professor of Political Science at the California Institute of Technology, told Sputnik.
With the swap deal, it can be said that Russia managed to advance its position at the expense of the US, according to Alan Cafruny, Henry Platt Bristol Professor of International Affairs with the Department of Government at the Hamilton College. US President Joe Biden has been facing criticism from Republicans for his inability to include Whelan in the final exchange and his consent to release Bout, though this fact is overshadowed by Griner’s popularity.
“She [Griner] committed a crime in the Russian Federation, but she certainly did not deserve to be incarcerated. Russia clearly wanted Bout back, but was not willing to give up Whelan, who will doubtless be the subject of future negotiations,” Cafruny added.
At the same time, Cafruny expressed the vague hope that the exchange agreement, despite its seeming inequity, could still set the tone for a resumption of talks on strategic stability and security guarantees between Moscow and Washington.
Kanishkan Sathasivam, professor in the Political Science department at Salem State University, also believes the exchange deal was unequal and Russia manipulated Griner’s case to gain Bout’s release. In the expert’s opinion, the agreement demonstrated that Russian citizens convicted in the US can count on advantageous treatment in contrast to US prisoners in Russia, such as Griner, who had been sentenced to nine years for a crime that can be considered “extremely minor.” Unlike Cafruny, Sathasivam is convinced the deal will only harden attitudes against Russia in the US.
Moreover, the Russian government is now likely to use Whelan and Marc Fogel — a US teacher sentenced to 14 years in a Russian prison for drug trafficking — as “bargaining chips” to get other Russian citizens released from US custody, Sathasivam said.
“Given these circumstances, there is no way any of this can possibly translate into anything positive between the US and Russia. People here in the US understand exactly what transpired in this ‘deal,’ and as such there is zero goodwill of any sort generated by this deal,” Sathasivam told Sputnik.
Relations between Moscow and Washington have been at a political impasse for almost a decade. Two states entered the phase of confrontation in 2014 as a result of the Ukrainian crisis and the accession of Crimea to Russia, with the relations degrading even more since then.
Bilateral relations reached an all-time low in February 2022 after Russia launched its special military operation in Ukraine. As a result, the two countries stopped any official negotiations on strategic stability and security, and returned to the cold-war rhetoric with the increased risk of a nuclear conflict.