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  • The San Juan Daily Star

Griner’s detention shows rise of hostage diplomacy

Brittney Griner, center, arriving for a court hearing on Friday outside Moscow.

By Max Fisher

Brittney Griner, the WNBA athlete facing criminal drug charges in Russia, may be merely the latest victim of a practice so common it has its own name: hostage diplomacy.

The U.S. government classifies Griner as “wrongfully detained,” meaning that it believes the charges against her are spurious, perhaps intended to pressure Washington over its involvement in Ukraine.

In recent years, a number of Americans have been swept up by hostile governments looking to use them as bargaining chips as part of some larger conflict with the United States.

Sometimes these governments target journalists or researchers. But they can be just as likely to scoop up tourists, visiting businesspeople and dual nationals living abroad — all the better to send a message that no American within their borders is safe.

Usually, the responsible government does not openly state that it is taking some innocent American hostage for geopolitical ends. But it will imply that the captive’s fate is linked to broader hostilities or even to some specific demand.

The practice is often associated with pariah states like Iran, Venezuela and North Korea. Those countries have relatively little international standing or foreign tourism to risk. They may also be desperate for leverage against American threats of regime change or war.

Turkey and especially China have also been accused of this tactic — and now Russia, too — adding to fears that it could become more routine, potentially leaving thousands of Americans vulnerable.

“Hostage diplomacy will likely become a more prevalent threat to the security of Western countries,” scholars Danielle Gilbert and Gaëlle Rivard Piché wrote recently in The Texas National Security Review, a policy journal.

The rise of great power competition, in which countries seek to get their way through coercion and zero-sum rivalries, along with the yearslong erosion of international norms meant to constrain such behavior, the scholars wrote, could favor a rise in this tactic.

Still, countries that have attempted this have faced mixed results, making it unclear how likely they are to repeat a tactic that can have high costs and uncertain payouts.

But Moscow’s detention of Griner, amid its failures to deter American involvement in Ukraine, suggests that such detentions may remain a tactic of last resort.

A messy tactic

The United States is unusually vulnerable to hostage diplomacy for the simple reason that, as the world’s third-most populous country and its largest economy, many of its citizens are within the borders of other nations, including hostile ones, at any given moment.

“There’s very little you can do to prevent another state from engaging in hostage diplomacy,” Van Jackson, a political scientist at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, told The Diplomat, an international affairs journal.

Detaining an American tourist also tends to generate substantial attention within the United States, allowing even small countries to exert indirect pressure on Washington.

There was North Korea’s 2016 detention of Otto F. Warmbier, a college student visiting with a tourist group during a moment of high tension over North Korean missile launches. Warmbier was released 17 months later in a vegetative state and days from death.

Also in 2016, Turkey arrested a visiting pastor, Andrew Brunson, on espionage charges. The case was widely seen as intended to pressure Washington to extradite a Turkish dissident living in the United States. Though Washington refused to extradite the dissident, Brunson was released in 2018 amid warming diplomatic ties.

Iran is considered a leading offender, having arrested dozens of dual nationals, including imprisoning Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian from 2014 to 2016 on spurious espionage charges.

In 2009, amid rising tensions over the country’s nuclear program, Iran arrested three American hikers near Iraq’s border with the country.

The hikers’ fates were left dangling, forcing Washington to weigh the issue alongside its nuclear demands. But while this gave Iran additional leverage, it also undercut Washington’s ability to strike a deal of any kind, for fear of being seen as rewarding hostage-takers.

Some analysts now believe that the hikers’ detention was initiated by hard-liners within Iran’s fractious government who wished to block rapprochement with the West. In other words, the goal may have been not to win U.S. concessions but to prevent them.

The American hikers were released two years later, just as reformists ascended within Tehran.

Worldwide, this practice is increasing by some counts, though not every detention of an American is a clear-cut case of hostage-taking for diplomatic leverage, making the phenomenon difficult to track.

A difficult dilemma

Time after time, Washington faces the same dilemma: The steps it will take to free a hostage, and the steps to deter governments from taking hostages in the future, are often at odds.

Appearing to so much as engage with the hostage-taker’s demands — for instance, by allowing Griner’s case to become linked to broader talks with Moscow over Ukraine — would risk encouraging hostile powers worldwide to take more such hostages.

Responding with retaliatory measures might help to deter future hostage-taking but can heighten the danger to Americans presently being held, daring the captor to escalate charges against their captive to show resolve. This can also make it harder for the captor to release their hostage without losing face.

At the same time, American policymakers will face pressure from victims’ families and civic groups who simply want the captive returned home, as well as from political groups that insist on taking a hard line against adversaries, and rivals ready to pounce if they don’t.

And then there is the question of how much attention to call to such cases. Playing them up can effectively increase the hostage’s value, making their quick return less likely. But engaging too quietly can risk conveying to foreign governments that hostage diplomacy goes unpunished — and to Americans abroad that, if caught up, they may be on their own.

“Ignoring the problem — or obscuring it with diplomatic euphemisms and opacity — only helps the hostage-takers,” Rezaian wrote in a recent essay on Griner’s case.

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