I have been involved in hundreds of tough negotiations – school contracts, political debates, legislation business deals. I will admit that I have never been involved in a hostage exchange, but the principles are the same.
Generally, one side makes their final offer – or so they say. That can mean a temporary impasse. That is when you stare across the table and use every other means to pressure the other side to give in. It is all a matter of who blinks first.
The Biden administration is saying that they made the deal because it was the only option Putin would accept. Of course, that is not known. Had the United States held out longer – and applied external pressures – perhaps Putin would have blinked – and hostage Paul Whelan would have been on his way home with basketball star Brittney Griner.
It would not be the first time the recalcitrant party folded. And it is my opinion Putin would have folded – if the pressures were against him. International public opinion was running against him – and intensifying due to the Ukraine War. His health appears to be deteriorating to the point of a public fall and defecation incident. Viktor Bout was in an important leader in Putin’s international terrorist activities – and a personal friend. He wanted him back very badly.
But Putin is a tough negotiator. He knows how to stare down the opposition. I have no doubt that based on experience, Putin believed that Biden would eventually fold – take half measure over a total win. If that was Putin’s mindset, he was correct.
If I were Biden, I would not have given in to Putin’s deal. I would have at least insisted that Whelan be part of the deal. In reality, that is a very small concession on Putin’s part. Whelan’s value as a future bargaining chip is not that high – and there does not appear to be anything on the American table that Putin wants at this time.
The legitimate celebration over Griner’s release is offset by the tragic realization that Whelan is nowhere near getting home – and maybe never will, at least alive.
Biden promises that they will continue to make every effort to secure Whelan’s release, but even Whelan must know that the talk is cheap. At this point, Biden has no leverage in any negotiations for Whelan’s release. He used it all to secure Griner’s release.
Whelan’s moment of opportunity was now. Remember, Whelan was already left behind once before when Trevor Reed was traded for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a major international drug dealer. As usual, Russia is getting back a dangerous criminal terrorist for an American citizen detained on a trumped-up charge.
Instead of hanging tough, Biden caved for some good press at the expense of a former military man who has languished in a Russian prison for four years – and has been passed over on two Biden prisoner exchanges.
And besides this particular deal, there is the question as to whether these prisoner swaps only encourage the taking of more hostages as a strategy. Based on the increasing number of times we have been negotiating trades with adversaries, the argument is compelling. Even such hardcore left senator as Chris Coons, of Delaware has criticized the Griner exchange for that very reason.
The Biden administration continues to make deals for hostages that look great in the news of the day – and benefits him politically — but we too often fail to connect the dots to the next person who gets grabbed as a bargaining chip based on the current policy. Just because they do not yet have a name and a face does not mean that they are not – or will not be — victims of the swap-at-any-cost policy.
Apart from the larger policy issue, I believe very strongly that had Biden played hardball, we would have had both Griner and Whelan at home today. Time was not on Putin’s side. Biden’s perceived weakness may have been.