Griner won’t be the last: Prisoner swaps, Putin style

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The Russian leader revels in Cold War-style trades; expect more Westerners to be arrested as he forms a “bank” of people for future prisoner swaps.

Amid the war in Ukraine, Russia and the United States find themselves busy arranging the most sensitive exchange between the two countries in more than a decade. Negotiations concern an infamous Russian arms dealer Victor Boutthe so-called Death Dealer, who has been in a US prison since 2010.

In exchange for his release, the United States seeks two American citizens; former u.s. marine Paul Whelan and basketball star Brittney Griner, both currently being held in Russian prisons.

Vladimir Putin is a regular at this game and he will certainly demand a much higher price from the Americans.

It is now something of a cliché that Putin is obsessed with mimicking Cold War grand style, including exchanges. The most cited example is the exchange of 2010, when 10 Russian undercover agents – supposedly illegal – including the redhead spy Anna Chapman, were exchanged at Vienna airport for four Russians who had been agents of western intelligence. The event was reminiscent of Cold War-era spy exchanges on the Glienicke Bridge linking Berlin and Potsdam.

The Kremlin played the operation very skilfully. The scandal was described as a huge victory for the SVR (even though the Russian spies had all been captured) to send the message that Russian intelligence was back on the world stage. It was also described as a victory for the FSB, which had caught up with the four Russians.

Putin is not a pure student of Cold War operations. He also learned lessons from his 22 years in power when he racked up his own history of swaps. In the end, he developed his own strategy and style with a signature element – always changing the terms of the deal.

Putin was director of the FSB in the late 1990s when the Kremlin was regularly involved in the murky process of exchanging and paying ransoms for hostages taken by Chechen separatists in the North Caucasus. This was the period when the First Chechen War was already over and the separatists enjoyed a period of independence but had no income. Soon some militants started kidnapping foreign and Russian journalists, army generals and Kremlin officials. Hundreds of people were taken hostage and the lucky ones were ransomed or exchanged for Chechens imprisoned in Russia.

To solve the problem, a dubious scheme was devised by the oligarch Boris Berezovsky, then deputy secretary of the Security Council, and Vladimir Rushailo, head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, known for his corrupt and brutal methods of fighting against organized crime. The idea was simple – to free the hostages from captivity, the Kremlin had to have more Chechens in prison. They called it “forming a hostage bank”, which meant holding people to trade in future transactions.

Putin’s FSB was part of this game and he never forgot these lessons. In the fall of 2019, he proved that he was capable of going much further than his masters from the Chechen era.

A prisoner swap with Ukraine on September 7, 2019, was intended as a triumph for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who had only been in office for a few months.

It was a massive exchange involving 35 people on each side. Zelensky released a group of Ukrainian sailors and a famous director, Oleg Sentsov. He personally oversaw the difficult negotiations and was so happy to have his people back that he announced the exchange on his way to the airport, but before the handover. It was a mistake.

Putin immediately upped the ante, demanding that another prisoner be added to the list – Vladimir Tsemakh, a Russian-backed separatist from eastern Ukraine who was a key witness to the downing of the MH flight -17 by a Russian missile in 2014.

The Dutch, who were leading the investigation into the atrocity, asked Zelenskyy to refuse, but to no avail. The Ukrainian leader felt trapped – having already announced the swap, he had no way to back down.

The way Putin played the game was seen by many in Moscow as proof that Vladimir Putin had become the master, indeed had truly unrivaled skills, in dealing with human beings.

By adding Tsemakh to the list at the last moment, he significantly undermined the international investigation into the downing of MH-17 and learned an important lesson. In this kind of game, authoritarian leaders have an advantage over Democrats. Unlike them, they don’t have to worry about public opinion. More than that, the greater the publicity surrounding the negotiations, the greater the pressure on democratic leaders to give in to the ever-increasing demands of dictators.

Putin’s tactics also incorporate lessons from the Chechen experience; that in this kind of game, the more brutality, the better. This explains why Brittney Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison, at the highest rate for her offense of possession of cannabis oil. That Russian prisons are notorious for their brutal and inhumane conditions only improves Putin’s hand. He knows that the more public the case becomes, the greater the possibility of upping the ante and demanding more high-value officers in Western prisons.

Putin has already started playing this game, demanding the release of Vadim Krasikov, a Russian assassin who murdered a Chechen warlord in Berlin in broad daylight, and who has been in a German prison since 2019.

And that means the West should be ready for the next logical step; that the Kremlin will once again seek to constitute a new “hostage bank”, filled not with Chechens but with Westerners.

Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov are non-resident senior researchers at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). They are Russian investigative journalists and the co-founders of Agentura.ru, an organization monitoring the activities of the Russian secret services.

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