President Joe Biden waited until former Marine Trevor Reed was out of Moscow, had been successfully exchanged for a Russian prisoner in Turkey, and was safely on a plane bound for the U.S. before calling Reed’s family.
Reed had spent nearly 3 years in a Russian jail after being arrested in 2019 on charges of assaulting police in Moscow. But Biden had been concerned about contacting his family too soon and risking upsetting the sensitive deal before Reed was securely out of Russia’s reach.
When Reed was finally airborne, Biden told his family the good news and released a statement saying Reed’s return was “a testament to the priority my Administration places on bringing home Americans held hostage and wrongfully detained abroad.” He promised to continue pressing for the release of other Americans being held in Russia, including Paul Whelan, who was arrested on suspicion of espionage in a Moscow hotel in 2018. Reed was freed in exchange for the release of Russian citizen Konstantin Yaroshenko, who had been sentenced in the U.S. in 2011 to 20 years on drug smuggling charges.
While other U.S. citizens captured abroad have been released during the Biden Administration, Reed’s was the first case in which Biden was willing to hand over a prisoner being held in the U.S. as part of the terms of the release, a step previous administrations had taken. Biden’s deliberate approach to freeing Americans held overseas has been marked by a cautious and bureaucratic decision-making process, according to two people involved in the negotiations, and a slow pace that has been frustrating to some families whose loved ones are held in foreign prisons.
“We continue to press for the release of Paul and we’re not done. We’ve not given up. It’s not over until every American who is wrongly detained is back home,” says a White House official. “It’s never fast enough for the people waiting for their loved ones and we get that. We understand their pain.”
While Biden decided to keep President Donald Trump’s lead hostage negotiator Roger Carstons in place, Biden’s careful tactics have stood in stark contrast to the free-wheeling and sometimes capricious way Trump went about bringing U.S. citizens home. Trump prided himself on pressing to get Americans released from prisons overseas, and relished the photo-ops that followed. But Biden and his advisors worry that prisoner swaps could exacerbate other points of friction and create more incentive for adversaries to capture Americans.
“It is night and day—with Trump, it was clearly something he saw as a gain for him, especially the way he did it very publicly,” says Vice President and Executive Director of the Richardson Center for Global Engagement Mickey Bergman, who worked with the Biden Administration on Reed’s release. In the previous Administration, getting a message directly to Trump was the key. “Trump had little to no policy process: if you can get in front of the President and if he likes it, he’ll do it,” Bergman says.
The Biden Administration though, “They’ve taken their time. They are a process-oriented administration,” Bergman says. “There’s a lot of these things that take an excruciating amount of time for people like me and for the families who are arguing for their release.”
Bergman traveled to Moscow at the end of February with former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson to meet Russian officials about Reed’s and Whelan’s cases, just before the Russian military launched its most recent invasion in Ukraine. It was on that trip that Russian officials made clear they would release Reed if the Americans handed over Yaroshenko. There was added urgency to Reed’s case because he was showing possible symptoms of tuberculosis. Richardson and Bergman brought the terms back to the Biden Administration and offered to manage the swap themselves, without official U.S. involvement, Bergman says. Biden decided to go ahead and have the U.S. government manage the exchange. “The credit is to Biden for actually making the decision and getting it done,” Bergman says.
But Reed’s detention was part of a broader global problem the U.S. faces. The arbitrary detention of Americans “for completely bogus crimes designed to gain leverage” has become a more common practice among a number of foreign governments, says a former senior State Department official who was recently involved in high-level negotiations for the release of Americans. “It reflects the changing global dynamics, the changing power relationships, as countries are circling each other trying to figure out how to get an advantage,” the former official says.
Reed’s release comes at a time when experts involved in helping negotiate the release of Americans detained overseas are seeing an uptick in Americans being arrested and held as bargaining chips, including in Venezuela, Iran, China. Venezuela recently released some Americans, after a visit from a high-level U.S. delegation, and holds several others. Iran is holding four American citizens. In Russia, addition to Whelan—who American officials say was not involved in spying—Russian authorities arrested WNBA basketball star Brittney Griner in February on suspicion of traveling with cannabis oil in vape cartridges. A person familiar with the talks around Griner’s case said that, at this point, U.S. officials are concerned that raising too much attention to her detention could play into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hands by turning her into an even more high profile hostage, making it harder to get her released.
“Using wrongful detention as a bargaining chip represents a threat to the safety of everyone working, traveling and living abroad,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said April 27, the day Reed was released. “Our objective continues to be to bring Paul Whelan home and any American who is not with their family and is being detained overseas.”
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