A Long Line of Cold War Trades Set the Stage for Brittney Griner’s Release

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To most scholars’ minds, the Cold War ended more than 30 years ago. But for practitioners of the kind of high-level diplomacy of that era, the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union did not usher in permission for those muscles to atrophy, that strategic approach to fade. In fact, it is that muscle memory—and borderline paranoia—from decades of detente and back-channeling that led to Thursday’s release of American basketball star Brittney Griner from a modern gulag in exchange for a Russian arms dealer.

To be clear: the deal was never about just those two individuals.

The trade-off, at an airfield in Abu Dhabi, had echoes of decades of such practical and symbolic moves between the East and West: your spy for our pilot; a Soviet dissident for your spies held by our allies. This week, it was a WNBA player for a weapons kingpin. At its most basic levels, these talks are part of an unemotional barter system, one in which national interests almost always overtake individual judgments. And yet that is the paradigm by which the Cold War remained on ice for so many decades. In the post-Cold War era, such dealings with nation-states like Russia are far-preferred alternative to non-state actors who have little appreciation for proportionality. It may be cruelly neutral, but moral appeals only work when both parties have endorsed the same set of values. That, to be clear, is not the case at the moment between the heirs of the Cold War.

Throughout Washington early Thursday, the news lept forth as a welcome surprise. Griner, a two-time Olympian and star player for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, was serving a nine-year sentence on charges of possession and smuggling of less than a gram of hashish oil. She pleaded guilty in July and asked for leniency for what she said was an honest mistake of a tool to help her manage pain. The Biden Administration had worked for months to secure her release, which drew added attention at home thanks to her wife’s unrelenting efforts to build pressure on the U.S. government to find a way to retrieve her from a notoriously harsh prison camp.

But Griner’s arrest and showtrial came at a moment of maximum advantage for the Russian government. Griner, who was in Moscow playing on a Russian professional team during the U.S. offseason, was arrested on Feb. 17, just one week before the invasion of Ukraine. Russia suddenly had another high-profile American in custody, one who was clearly not a plausible intelligence threat a la Paul Whelan—a former Marine and security executive who was sentenced to 16 years for allegedly spying while in Russia. In Griner, the Russians had secured something potentially more valuable: a celebrity cause that would prove embarrassing to President Joe Biden if her detention continued indefinitely.

American officials had sought to bring home both Griner and Whelan. Senior officials stressed to reporters on Thursday that Whelan was simply not in play during this swap. They faced, in the words of White House allies on Capitol Hill, a choice between one specific American or none at all. Given what was possible, Biden personally signed off on the swap of Griner for an arms dealer sentenced in 2012 to 25 years as part of a sting operation of DEA agents posing as weapons buyers from Columbia. Viktor Bout was also accused of selling weapons to al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Conservatives immediately questioned the proportionality of trading an arms dealer—everyone suddenly knew the details of the case involving the so-called Merchant of Death—for a basketball player called even before her release “a woke black lesbian” by The American Conservative.

But here’s the thing about such Cold War-tinged trades: the actual value is secondary to its symbolism. Diplomacy is often as much about the results as the effort. Washington and Moscow are approaching the one-year anniversary of unsuccessful arm’s-length talks about the fate of Ukraine and the ongoing war there. A rare diplomatic success between the United States and Russia can hardly hurt their sour relationship, especially as American officials are now reportedly considering giving Ukrainian officials cluster munitions—which are already being deployed with grave success by the Russians against Ukrainians. In that light, any agreement made over these two prisoners signifies far more than a pair of individuals being passed across runways in Abu Dhabi.

The State Department’s historical files from the Cold War are littered with such deals. Hollywood has made them the stuff of legend, often using the diplomatic cables as the basis for scripts. The actual slog of these tradeoffs are often far less sexy and seldom as simple as pop culture would have Americans believe. But they do form a pillar of a broader foreign policy, one that, at the moment, involves US leaders weighing how long Americans’ support for Ukrainians’ war will continue, at what cost, and against just how much Russian pressure. With Griner’s return home to the United States in progress, Washington proved that it can help reduce the pressure cooker of its relationship with Moscow by a few pounds. Now, much of D.C. will keep an eye to see what valves can be loosened and by how much. After all, a lot of the Cold War-era engineers still remember how those old machines work, and it’s in America’s national interest to keep those diplomatic workmen at the ready.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com