The Cold War to Brittney Griner: a new twist in U.S.-Russia prisoner swaps The U.S. and Russia are trying to work out a prisoner exchange that involves basketball star Brittney Griner. While they've done deals for decades, the trading usually involves spies for spies.

The Cold War to Brittney Griner: a new twist in U.S.-Russia prisoner swaps

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The U.S. and Russia are trying to work out a prisoner swap that involves basketball star Brittney Griner and at least one other American. Washington and Moscow have a history of these kinds of exchanges. But as NPR's Greg Myre reports, past deals almost always involved trading spies and alleged spies.

CHRIS COSTA: We're looking at some photographs of Francis Gary Powers, who was a U-2 pilot.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: In a darkened exhibit hall at the International Spy Museum, director Chris Costa talks about the most dramatic prisoner swap ever between the U.S. and the Russians. In 1960, Francis Gary Powers was working for the CIA, flying a U-2 spy plane 70,000 feet above the Soviet Union when he was shot down. At that time, the U.S. had limited human intelligence from the ground.

COSTA: So we had spies in terms of aircraft that could take pictures of the Soviet Union.

MYRE: The Americans didn't think the Soviets could shoot down a plane at that altitude, but they did. And the Americans didn't expect a pilot to survive an ejection from that height, but he did.

FRANCIS GARY POWERS JR: When my father was shot down, there was all sorts of misinformation, fake news being published as to how he was captured.

MYRE: Francis Gary Powers Jr. is the son of the pilot.

POWERS: They thought sabotage. They thought pilot error. They thought flameout or descent. They thought UFO encounter.

MYRE: A couple years earlier, the Americans had convicted a Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel. He had pretended to be a photographer in Brooklyn but was secretly passing along coded messages stuffed inside hollow coins. The U.S. and Soviet governments each feared their own spy would spill secrets while being interrogated by the adversary.

POWERS: Our governments wanted to get them back to be debriefed, to find out what happened. How did you get caught? Do the Soviets have the missile technology to shoot down the U-2? Was it a flameout?

MYRE: Meanwhile, on the Soviet side...

POWERS: They wanted to debrief Rudolf Abel to find out how he got caught so that they could improve their intelligence systems in the future.

MYRE: Director Steven Spielberg turned the story into a movie in 2015 called "Bridge Of Spies." Tom Hanks plays the American lawyer at the center of the negotiations. Early on, he argues that the convicted Soviet spy shouldn't be put to death because...


TOM HANKS: (As James B. Donovan) It is possible that in the foreseeable future, an American of equivalent rank might be captured by Soviet Russia. We might want to have someone to trade.

MYRE: That would turn out to be Francis Gary Powers. Still, Powers would be held for nearly two years. Already difficult negotiations were further complicated by U.S. insistence that a second American detainee be released, a student held in communist East Germany. A deal was eventually struck. But then, and now, the negotiations are difficult, says Powers.

POWERS: It needs to be with finesse, regardless of whether it's a public exchange and a media hype or if it's behind the scenes with diplomatic negotiations.

MYRE: Today, the Biden administration is seeking the return of two Americans it says are wrongfully detained. Brittney Griner is the WNBA star detained in February. She's pleaded guilty to having hashish oil in her luggage. Paul Whelan, a former Marine who traveled openly to Russia for years, has been jailed since 2019. In a secret trial, a Russian court convicted him of espionage, a charge he denies. The U.S. appears willing to offer in return Viktor Bout, a notorious arms smuggler serving a 25-year sentence in Illinois. Russian leader Vladimir Putin is sure to drive a tough bargain.

OLEG KALUGIN: He's not easy to deal with.

MYRE: Oleg Kalugin is a former Russian spy, and he was once Putin's boss when Putin was a young intelligence officer.

KALUGIN: Putin is sly, smart, and he manipulates people and circumstances if he can, as long as they play in accordance with his interests.

MYRE: Kalugin, who's 88, left Russia decades ago and now lives in suburban Washington. He wasn't much impressed with Putin back then. Now they really don't care for each other.

KALUGIN: He called me a traitor, and I called him a war criminal (laughter).

MYRE: Spy swaps are likely to remain a fixture in U.S.-Russia relations. What's changing is the growing number of private U.S. citizens becoming entangled in foreign legal cases. Again, Chris Costa.

COSTA: What we're seeing play out now is really more hostage diplomacy.

MYRE: Before running the Spy Museum, Costa worked at the White House. He was responsible for Americans detained or held hostage abroad. Brittney Griner, he says...

COSTA: Is a pawn in an international game. She has pled guilty and yet she is being held for political reasons.

MYRE: It was much more straightforward, he says, when it was just spy versus spy. Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington.

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