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A US-Russia prisoner swap for reporter Evan Gershkovich could be tricky: 3 essential reads on the recent history

As an image of a man with brown wavy hair with the words, ‘I stand with Evan,’ hangs overhead, a gray-haired man in a black suit jacket and bowtie claps his hands.
President Joe Biden claps for Evan Gershkovich at the White House correspondents’ dinner. Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The parents of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who is being detained in Russia where he has been accused of espionage, said in multiple July 12, 2023, news reports that President Joe Biden promised to do whatever it takes to bring their son home.

Given that relations between the United States and Russia are strained right now, due in large part to Russia’s war on Ukraine, Gershkovich’s release may seem like a tall order.

But as Russia’s April 2022 release of former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed and WNBA player Brittney Griner in December 2022 show, it’s possible. Reed had been held in Russia for three years on charges related to a fight he allegedly had with a Russian police officer, while Griner was convicted on drug smuggling charges in February 2022.

Gershkovich’s parents, Ella Milman and Mikhail Gershkovich, made the media rounds on the heels of the Biden administration’s acknowledgment that it’s discussing with Russia a potential prisoner swap for their son.

How, when or if such a swap will happen, though, is unclear, given current tensions. But countries often find ways to exchange prisoners, even when they have strained diplomatic relations as the U.S. and Russia do now.

The Conversation has covered some of the complications that can play a part in country-to-country prisoner swaps. Here are three essential reads to help you understand issues governments could contend with, whether at home or abroad, when trying to secure their citizens’ release.

1. History can affect perceptions of government efforts

Before she ran afoul of Russian law, Griner was a superstar who played professional basketball in the U.S. and, to supplement her WNBA income, in Russia. But after she was arrested at a Moscow airport with cannabis vape cartridges in her luggage, she became another American detained by a foreign country.

During Griner’s detainment, Rokeshia Renné Ashley, a scholar of Black women’s bodies a Florida International University, wrote, “Speculation on the reason for Griner’s arrest centers on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s alleged desire to use the American star as a geopolitical pawn at a time when U.S.-Russian relations were at their lowest point since the Cold War.”

While that speculation lingered for months, for Ashley, the real concern was whether Griner, a gay and Black woman, was, in fact, a good pawn or not. That concern stemmed from the lesser value people in the United States historically have placed on the lives of Black women and Black gay women compared to their white counterparts. Missing Black women and girls, for example, get less media attention than missing white women and girls.

After months of public quiet by Griner’s friends and family – who followed advice from the Biden administration to remain low-key during her detention – widespread public support and media attention preceded her eventual release.

Read more: WNBA star Brittney Griner's release still uncertain as her trial begins in a Russian court

2. Local law can impede negotiations

The Russian government released Griner on Dec. 8, 2022, after lengthy negotiations ended with an agreement that the U.S. would trade convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for the basketball phenom.

Bout had been held in an American prison for over 10 years.

But as William E. Butler of Penn State, a scholar of Russian law, wrote, Griner’s case was complicated by the law. If, when and where she allegedly broke it – and whether she allegedly broke it intentionally – were all factors in her case.

That, as Griner said, she did not "intend to commit a crime” when she packed the vaping cartridges in her hand luggage was immaterial. The question was whether she entered the green customs channel with intent,“ Butler wrote. "Under Russian law and also that of the U.S., direct intent was present. What she did was, from her government’s standpoint, at best careless and thoughtless. Moreover, it exposed the United States, in the end, to an unwelcome scenario of exchanges at a most difficult time in the international community.”

Read more: Brittney Griner's case was difficult for US negotiators for one key reason: She was guilty

3. Countries that don’t talk, find a way

Sometimes, two countries with strained or nonexistent diplomatic relations need to communicate with one another. While the U.S. and Russia are still communicating directly, similarly situated countries don’t always talk, and that can impose hardships on their citizens.

“But international diplomacy has found an ingenious solution to the problem of communication between countries that have broken ties,” wrote Klaus W. Larres, a scholar of history and international affairs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

That solution is third-country involvement. Larres detailed how these often neutral countries give representatives of estranged nations the means to have diplomatic conversations even without formal or productive nation-to-nation ties.

Known as the protecting power, a third country that steps into this role solves a communication problem between countries that don’t communicate but need to during war or other times of crisis. In this role, a protecting power may do anything from performing standard consular functions, such as handling passport or visa applications, to handling matters related to issues like adoption. But it can also convey messages from the leader of one country to the other. The protecting power could also be called on to negotiate a prisoner swap on behalf of a country.

For many years, Sweden has served this function for the United States with North Korea, and Switzerland has been a protecting power for the U.S. with Iran.

Read more: How countries in conflict, like Iran and the US, still talk to each other

Editor’s note: This story is a roundup of articles from The Conversation’s archives.

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