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Former diplomat is in favor of a prisoner swap to bring Brittney Griner home


The WNBA All-Star Game gets underway tomorrow. But this year, one of the league's biggest superstars will not be there. For nearly six months, Brittney Griner, center for the Phoenix Mercury and two-time Olympic gold medalist, has been detained in Russia on drug charges. She plays for a Russian basketball team during the WNBA's offseason. She pled guilty this week, but said she did not intend to break the law, and she could face up to 10 years in a Russian prison. Griner's family members, supporters and fans have recently grown more frustrated, calling on the Biden administration to step up their efforts to get her back to the U.S. We called former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul to help us understand some of the foreign policy and diplomatic factors at play here and what it might take to get Brittney Griner out of Russia. Ambassador McFaul, welcome to NPR.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Thanks for having me.

PARKS: So I want to start with what happened this week with Griner pleading guilty. Did that plea surprise you, and how does that impact her chances of getting out of Russia?

MCFAUL: It didn't surprise me because I think what they're trying to do is just speed up the process here. Remember, there's no rule of law in Russia. Once you're arrested, there's a 99% conviction rate, I believe - something in that order. So the chances of her getting out through pleading not guilty, I think, were very slim. And my guess is her lawyers made the decision that if they plead guilty, speed up the process, get a sentence, that will get them closer and faster to the process of perhaps some kind of prisoner swap - Brittney Griner for somebody that we hold here in the United States.

PARKS: Reports out of Russia indicate that the Kremlin is interested in a prisoner swap for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. Can I just ask you - is that something, as a former ambassador, that the U.S. should consider?

MCFAUL: Well, when I was the ambassador and I worked at the White House even before then, Viktor Bout was in jail during that time. And we heard many, many offers of trying to get him out. Remember, he's not just an arms dealer, but, in the Russian system, he's probably linked. And now I'm speculating here, but if you just look at his background and what he did in the past, it sounds like he probably has connections to Russian intelligence services. And remember, the president of Russia does, too - Vladimir Putin. So they want to get him out. They've wanted him to get him out for a long, long time. It presents a problem for the United States' system because he's a real criminal, and the Department of Justice convicted him, and he's in jail for a good reason. Brittney Griner is not a real criminal, and so they feel very uneasy about doing those kinds of swaps. That said, we've done it before. Just earlier this year, the Biden administration traded Konstantin Yaroshenko, another Russian prisoner - convicted criminal - for Trevor Reed. And back in 2010, when I was in the government - I was working at the White House at the time - we swapped spies - a dozen of them that we picked up here in the United States in return for four Russians that we wanted to get out of Russian prison. So there is a precedent for these things to happen.

PARKS: Would freeing Bout actively hurt American national security?

MCFAUL: That's a tough call. I can imagine my colleagues in the Biden administration struggling with that and having differences of opinion. My personal view is it's a trade worth taking. I would add others, by the way - not just Brittney Griner. Paul Whelan is unjustly being held. Marc Fogel is another American convicted for 14 years in prison in Russia for the same alleged crime as Brittney Griner. So I would pursue a swap to get all those Americans out. But I think it's worth the trade. Yes, I would take the deal.

PARKS: I want to talk a little bit about the U.S. response so far over the last six months. It feels like, in the past few days, there's been a much more organized push from people in Brittney Griner's orbit to get the U.S. government to take action. Even though she was detained in February, the U.S. did not declare Griner wrongfully detained until May. Why, in your view, hasn't there been more urgency from the U.S. government on responding to this?

MCFAUL: You know, I don't want to presume that that is true. It feels that way, of course, to those that have loved ones in jail. But to presume that because there hasn't been progress they're not paying attention - I don't think that's the case. You know, in talking to senior Biden administration officials, they've been very focused on Brittney Griner from day one - same with Paul Whelan, same with Marc Fogel. But I just think it's important for people to understand we're dealing with Vladimir Putin and his government. They don't care about rule of law. They don't care about what's right and what's wrong, and that makes it very difficult to negotiate with them.

PARKS: I'm curious on your thoughts on something that's been brought up a bunch over the last six months. Because this is a superstar athlete who is a woman, Griner's coach said this week that if this was LeBron James in custody, that he'd be back in the U.S. by now. I'm curious on if you think that's true and how this would be playing out differently if this was LeBron James or Michael Phelps or any other superstar athlete who was a man.

MCFAUL: I don't know. I personally do not think that's a fair indictment of the Biden administration. I know the people working on this case personally. I know they're doing everything in their power to get Brittney Griner out. And the presumption that somehow she's a woman and they're not focused on it - that is definitely not the perception I have. I just think people need to understand they're all focused on the Biden administration. There's another player here. It's called the Russian government. It's called Vladimir Putin. And one just needs to acknowledge that he is a very difficult person to deal with in his system of government.

PARKS: I'm also curious about the timing here because the arrest of Brittney Griner came right around the same time as Putin's invasion of Ukraine. How do you think those two things are linked, and are they linked in your mind?

MCFAUL: That's a hard question. I don't know the answer, and I hesitate because I know of other cases where they've wrongly detained and arrested and imprisoned Americans long before this war. I do, however, think that, at the end of the day, Putin will be transactional in this case, and he will not try to link a resolution or a swap of prisoners - in this case, alleged criminals - with the war in Ukraine. I think he's capable of separating those two. And my evidence for that is we just did the deal between Trevor Reed and Konstantin Yaroshenko just a few months ago.

PARKS: Obviously, it's hard to predict the future on this, but you've thought about Vladimir Putin's mindset more than most people in the U.S. How do you think this situation ends?

MCFAUL: Well, I hope it ends in a trade. I want to be very clear about that. That's my personal view. And I want all of those Americans - Griner, Whelan, and Fogel - to be traded for Viktor Bout. He is a giant, horrific, real criminal. I think that is a commensurate trade. I worry that it could drag on for a long time because these things are difficult to negotiate, and people are uncomfortable trading criminals. In the U.S. government and the Russian government, it will ultimately take, I think, a political decision at the very top - President Biden on our side and President Putin on their side.

PARKS: That was former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. He's the director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. Ambassador McFaul, thank you so much for joining us.

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