I recently watched the movie “Bridge of Spies” in which Tom Hanks, playing an American lawyer, negotiated the release of a U.S. spy pilot shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 and a U.S. student unlawfully detained in East Germany in exchange for a convicted Russian spy.
Of course, the similarities to the recently released U.S. pro basketball star Brittney Griner immediately jumped out. But this time, the U.S. didn’t get an additional American held in Russia. Only Griner came home in exchange for the notorious Russian arms dealer Victor “Merchant of Death” Bout.
1. Putin Had Leverage
Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and other despots around the world know that we and our elected officials care deeply about the safety of U.S. citizens. In contrast, these tyrants care less about their folks caught abroad.
This provides them with relatively strong leverage and puts the U.S. at an institutional disadvantage.
Putin also had a better Plan B/alternative to doing this prisoner exchange than the U.S., enhancing his leverage. With no exchange, Bout would get out in 2029 after being locked up since 2008. While Putin wanted him out now, he would be freed in 7 years anyway.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s Plan B/alternative, by contrast, was relatively poor as he was experiencing significant public and political pressure to get Griner out. This got even worse after Griner’s sentence to 9 years in a notorious Russian penal colony.
Of course, Biden would have experienced even greater pressure had Griner not admittedly violated Russian law by carrying vape cannisters with cannabis oil to Russia. Despite this, everyone knew her arrest close to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was largely due to her high-profile status and to give Russia a political prisoner.
Bottom line: Putin had stronger leverage than the U.S., and he knew it.
2. The U.S. Has Historically Traded a Lot for its Citizens
Jeremy Bash, the CIA Chief of Staff in 2010 when we engaged in a high-profile spy swap with Russia, was recently quoted as saying “We value our own citizens a thousand times more than we value the foreign criminal. Israel takes the same approach. They’d trade a thousand Hamas fighters for one I.D.F. soldier. We in the U.S. take the same attitude. We will do almost anything to save an American life.”
Every dictator on the planet knows this. And this creates bad precedent for the U.S. and incentivizes others to unlawfully grab our citizens abroad. Given this, it’s incredible that so few Americans have been taken over the years.
But perhaps it’s also because many hostage taker countries have a lot to lose diplomatically by doing this, argues international reporter Max Fisher in a New York Times column entitled “In Hostage Diplomacy, It’s Often the Hostage-Takers Who Pay”.
Fisher notes that China in 2018 arrested two Canadians to pressure Canada to release a Chinese telecom executive facing extradition to the U.S. on fraud charges. But Canada and the U.S. held firm. Importantly, the adverse publicity led Canada to reject a major Chinese trade deal and to refuse to award a huge contract to that Chinese telecom company.
At the end of the day, though, the U.S. has often been willing to give more than it receives to get the safe return of its citizens, especially high-profile ones. This precedent held true for Griner.
3. The Election Timing Made a Difference
It’s no coincidence that 1) the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken went public in July with our offer for Griner, prior to the 2022 mid-term elections, and 2) this deal happened shortly after the elections.
Timing is critical in almost all negotiations, and this one was no different. The timing issue here, however, was almost certainly political as Secretary Blinken going public when he did weakened our leverage and made us appear desperate. Most of these negotiations take place privately, behind the diplomatic curtain.
So why did Blinken do it? I strongly suspect it was due to public pressure to placate the Griner camp and to publicly communicate to the relevant political constituencies, before the mid-terms, that they were working really hard to get Griner out.
Politics also explains why this occurred after the mid-terms. Putin – who is desperately battling Biden and the West over Ukraine – would never have delivered Biden a publicly perceived win prior to the election.
When deals occur often impact whether they occur.
Latz’s Lesson: Leverage, precedent and timing played significant roles in the Griner negotiations – as they do in most negotiations.
* Marty Latz is the founder of Latz Negotiation, a national negotiation training and consulting company that helps individuals and organizations achieve better results with best practices based on the experts’ research. He can be reached at 480.951.3222 or Marty@LatzNegotiation.com.