Best advice for Americans? Stay out of Russia

From the moment Brittney Griner’s plight became known, she was a valuable commodity to be traded.

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This video grab taken from a footage shown by Russian state media shows U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner On a plane after being released on Dec. 8 from the Russian prison where she being held.

This video grab taken from a footage shown by Russian state media shows U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner On a plane after being released on Dec. 8 from the Russian prison where she being held.

AFP Photo/Russian State Media

If there’s one clear lesson from the Brittney Griner/Paul Whelan controversy that’s keeping partisans in America’s culture wars all worked up, it’s this: Stay out of Russia.

As my man Charles P. Pierce puts it in Esquire: “The government there appears to be operating on the same business plan as the drug cartels in this hemisphere, or the Somali ship hijackers: Grab up an influential hostage and get what you can in return.”

Russia’s government is a criminal syndicate under Vladimir Putin. No foreigner, and particularly no American with a public identity, has any legal rights there whatsoever. Griner was hardly a household name in America when airport authorities in Moscow grabbed her up for carrying a few grams of hash oil in her luggage — a catastrophically naive and thoughtless act. I, for one, had barely heard of her, and I read the sports page before I read anything else in the morning paper; WNBA basketball just isn’t my thing.

Nevertheless, from the moment Griner’s plight became known, she was a valuable commodity to be traded. She seems a decent person, if somewhat unworldly (as pampered star athletes tend to be) — respected and beloved by people who know her. I’m glad to see her set free. May she live long and prosper.

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His eminence Fox News’ Tucker Carlson assured his audience that Griner despises America, because she once objected to a pregame ceremony featuring “The Star-Spangled Banner” in the immediate wake of Breonna Taylor’s killing by Louisville police. “That’s the kind of position that gets you rewarded by Joe Biden,” Carlson said. “Hate America? Perfect!”

To which James Carville had a perfect response: acknowledging that negotiating with kidnappers is a perilous thing, but sometimes the only thing. “Does anyone in their right mind think that if Brittney was a blond Chi Omega from SMU that the reaction would have been the same? Of course not!”

As for Griner, she explained her protest: “I don’t mean that in any disrespect to our country. My dad was in Vietnam and a law officer for 30 years. I wanted to be a cop before basketball. I do have pride for my country.”

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Meanwhile, it tells you all you need to know that what the Putin regime wanted in return was notorious international arms dealer Viktor Bout, a murderous cynic responsible for thousands of deaths worldwide. Definitely Vladimir’s kind of guy. Not that there’s any shortage of dead-eyed killers in the Kremlin orbit. Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine makes that abundantly clear.

Does Bout going free after nearly 11 years in a U.S. penitentiary make Russia more murderous? Not to where you’d notice.

That’s one reason I’m unmoved by conservative histrionics over the deal. The Biden administration was offered a take-it-or-leave-it trade for Griner. They took it.

Even the family of Paul Whelan, also languishing in a Russian prison since 2018, understands the logic of that. (Although if you were Whelan’s sister or twin brother, would you antagonize the White House?)

Many Republican politicians haven’t been so shy. Florida Sen. Rick Scott was typical. “I’m glad Brittney is coming home,” he tweeted, “but what about U.S. Marine vet Paul Whelan? He’s still held by Putin in Russia. For Biden to give Putin a dangerous arms dealer — someone known as the ‘Merchant of Death’ — is weak & disgusting. Doing so while leaving Paul behind is unforgivable.”

Almost needless to say, Donald Trump has taken a similar line. “The deal for Griner is crazy and bad,” he announced on Truth Social. “I would have gotten Paul out, however, just as I did with a record number of other hostages.”

History, however, records that Trump did nothing for Whelan back when he could have. He wouldn’t even talk with the man’s family on the phone.

It’s also true that official denials aside, Whelan’s personal history is, shall we say, a good deal more complicated than Griner’s. For starters, he isn’t just a “former Marine,” as contemporary accounts insist. He was busted in rank and drummed out of the Corps after a court-martial convicted him of six counts of larceny and altering his own personnel record online.

His family never learned of these things until after Whelan was arrested in his room at Moscow’s Hotel Metropol with a USB drive in his pocket containing lists of FSB operatives. He claims his ostensible Russian friend, himself a member of the Russian security agency, planted it there. He was also carrying four passports: U.S., Canadian, British and Irish. Not illegal, but unusual. The U.S. government has adamantly and repeatedly denied that he was or could ever have been, given his compromised history, an American spy.

But when has the U.S. government ever burned a captured operative? Like undercover cops, spies often have dicey histories. Living a lie takes specialized talents. Whatever Whelan was playing at during his many business trips to Russia, he made himself vulnerable.

Perhaps inadvertently, perhaps not.

Either way, Biden needs to bring him home. And either way, it’s going to cost.

Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President.”

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