The imperfect economy of prisoner swaps

The imperfect economy of prisoner swaps

Plus: Spain investigates mysterious letter bombs, the European Union bans Russian oil, and no one knows how Belarus’ foreign minister died

Hi there Intriguer. Team Intrigue took a beating this weekend as both the US and Australia got booted from World Cup (sorry, Valentina, Italy didn’t even make it). Our pick to win it all, Brazil, looks on point after they beat South Korea 4-1 yesterday. Next up, the English get to re-litigate the Battle of Hastings when they face off against the French on Saturday – we expect only slightly fewer men lying on the grass clutching at their injuries by the end.

Today’s briefing is a ~5.2 min read:

  • 🔄 Prisoner swaps: Why non-democracies usually come out ahead.
  • ➕ Plus: Spain investigates mysterious letter bombs, the European Union bans Russian oil, and no one knows how Belarus’ foreign minister died.

The imperfect economy of prisoner swaps

In brief:

  • In August, Russia sentenced US basketball star Brittney Griner to nine years in prison on drug charges, a move that many think was political.
  • Governments in democratic countries often face public pressure to negotiate the release of high-profile political prisoners and frequently ‘pay’ higher prices than their non-democratic counterparts.

‘Hostage diplomacy’

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed on Sunday that the US is still “actively engaged” with Russia over a possible prisoner exchange.

  • Former US Marine Paul Whelan has been imprisoned in Russia since 2018 on espionage charges that the US says are fabricated.
  • And American basketball star Brittney Griner has been detained since 17 February this year, after she was arrested in a Moscow airport for carrying hash oil in the form of a vape.

In exchange for their release, Russia is demanding the release of convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout (aka ‘The Merchant of Death‘) and Vadim Krasikov, a former FSB colonel convicted of assassinating a Chechen military commander in Berlin in 2019.

Prisoner exchanges are nothing new

Countries have been exchanging prisoners for hundreds of years (perhaps longer).

But democracies generally have less leverage in prisoner swaps

Democratic governments are accountable to voters, media coverage, and public pressure campaigns, which often means that elected politicians feel compelled to act, thereby weakening their negotiating position.

  • For example, in 2011, Israel exchanged 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
  • And in March of this year, a British-Iranian charity worker was released by Iran after a series of hunger strikes by her husband yielded a £400M ‘debt settlement’ from the British government.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo summed up the dilemma after negotiating the controversial release of an aid worker who Belgium said had been taken prisoner by Iran arbitrarily:

“Belgium does not abandon its citizens. What do you tell his family, that we are going to let him rot in his cell?”


(Of course, the illegal detention of several prisoners in Guantanamo Bay over the last two decades is a stark reminder that democracies illegally imprison foreigners when it suits them, too).

A slippery slope?

Some experts are worried that Griner’s detention might be a turning point in prisoner swap diplomacy:

“… [W]hat has changed in the decades since the old Cold War is that instead of spies being traded, we have ordinary citizens like sports figures being detained. Griner was never charged with a national security crime. The Russians sought to punish her for breaking their overly harsh drug laws.”

Former US Under-Secretary of State Tara Sonenshine:

To combat that concern, Joe Biden recently signed an executive order authorising sanctions against “foreign states that engage in the practice of wrongful detention“.

Meanwhile, the cases of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner have taken on a new urgency recently: Whelan’s health has deteriorated, and Griner was transferred to IK-2, one of Russia’s infamous penal colonies two weeks ago.


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🇪🇪 Estonia

Estonia is undertaking its most ambitious armament project ever, acquiring a $200M missile defence package from the US over the weekend.

  • The package includes the highly-coveted High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARs), which analysts say helped turn the tide of the war in Ukraine’s favour.

🇪🇺 European Union

The price cap on Russian oil, set at $60 per barrel by the European Union and ratified by the G7, went into effect on Monday.

  • A near-total embargo of Russian crude deliveries to the EU also kicked in on Monday.

🇩🇪 Germany

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock met her Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar for two days of talks in New Delhi to pave the way for German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to visit India in early 2023.

🇬🇷 Greece

Negotiations to return Greece’s Parthenon Marbles (which have been housed in the British Museum in London since 1816) are nearly complete.

  • The news is somewhat surprising given former Prime Minister Johnson said in March last year that “the UK government has a firm longstanding position on the sculptures, which is that they were legally acquired by Lord Elgin under the appropriate laws of the time”.

🇪🇸 Spain

Spanish security officials are on high alert after a series of letter bombs arrived at the US and Ukrainian embassies and the offices of prominent Spanish politicians last week.

  • Spain’s Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska believes the bombs might be linked to the Russo-Ukraine War.

How did Belarus’ foreign minister die?

Vladimir Makei (right) was set to meet with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov (left) days before his mysterious death. Credits: AFP

The news: The Belarusian foreign minister, Vladimir Makei, died on 26 November, aged 64.

  • Makei had served as both an assistant and chief-of-staff to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko for over a decade before becoming foreign minister in 2012.

Shady happenings afoot? In announcing Mr Makei’s death, the foreign ministry only shared that he ‘died suddenly’ without indicating where or how he died.

  • The former British Ambassador to Belarus Nigel Gould-Davies speculated that “there may be something very sinister behind [Makei’s] sudden and unexplained death.”

The context: Minister Makei was considered among the most European-oriented within President Lukashenko’s inner circle, and frequently encouraged the president to forge closer ties with the West.

  • Makei died just a few days before he was set to represent Belarus at the annual meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe on 1 December.

Belarus has become increasingly beholden to Russia since President Putin helped President Lukashenko brutally suppress protests in 2020-21.

  • Even though Belarus has allowed Russia to stage its troops on Belarusian soil, it has not openly joined Russia’s invasion.

As Putin’s war effort flags, some analysts think that Putin wants a more reliably pro-Russian Belarusian foreign minister. As analyst Pavel Slunkin notes:

“Russophile candidates are on the list [to replace Makei]. Such figures would pursue even closer rapprochement with Russia, would never consider a return to what Belarus used to term its “multi-vector foreign policy,” and would fully support Russia’s attempts to reshape the system of international relations by force.”


Russian oil cap agreed, but is it too high?

The price cap on Russian crude is the EU’s most ambitious effort yet to slash Russia’s oil revenues, which have remained resilient despite sweeping Western sanctions.

But some, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, are worried the cap is too high to make a meaningful impact because Russian crude is trading below the $60 threshold.

  • Plus, Russian threats to cut oil production could lead to a sharp rise in energy prices, which is precisely what Western policymakers hope to avoid.
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