The Prisoner Swap Edition
On politics, Russia, and leverage
Colin here. There is a recurring scene in high-flying espionage dramas and le Carré novels: the prisoner swap. It is always in some sort of neutral territory—a bridge, an airstrip—where prisoners are walked across a dividing line. Most times, there are heavily armed guards to ensure no funny business.
Photo: AFP archives
The world witnessed a real-life version of this recently when American Trevor Reed was released by Russia in Turkey, in exchange for Russian citizen Konstantin Yaroshenko who was serving a lengthy sentence in the United States on cocaine-trafficking charges, according to The New York Times. Reed was detained in Russia for three years. The release came after months of negotiations and finally occurred when Reed was in failing health, after a rumored exposure to Tuberculosis and COVID-19 in confinement. Reed was a former Marine living in Russia, who was initially arrested for public intoxication.
Another American and former Marine remains in captivity in the country. According to the Texas Tribune, “[Paul] Whelan is from Michigan and was arrested in Russia in 2018, accused of spying and sentenced to 17 years. Whelan is also a former Marine; however, he was discharged for bad conduct after being convicted of larceny.” He and his family have said he’s not a spy but a tourist who was set up by the government. The Russian FSB claim he took possession of a flash drive with photos and names of students from a school for border guards, a claim he calls “ludicrous.”
Why is this interesting?
We’ll never know the true backstory behind these cases. But it is interesting to see the commonality: Russia snapping up American citizens with a convenient military background on trumped-up charges, and holding them as political chits.
These chits can be traded for priority prisoners that Russia wants back. And there are some recurring names. Whelan told the BBC in an interview: “He says two names were always mentioned: arms dealer Victor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko, convicted on a drug-smuggling charge - Russians in prison in the United States.” Yaroshenko was just released in the Reed trade. Bout is the notorious arms smuggler sentenced to 25 years in US prison. He ran an air-transport ring out of Belgium that involved everything from weapons for arming various hot zones to blood diamonds. He is purported to be one of the most valuable “swaps” for Russia.
It’s not all Marines. Russia also recently detained US professional basketball player Brittany Griner. According to Al Jazeera, “Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medallist and All-Star center in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), has been detained in Russia since mid-February on charges of carrying vape cartridges that contained cannabis oil in her luggage.”
As US and Russian relations reach new lows with the ongoing war and subsequent sanctions, the backroom political maneuvers will no doubt escalate. (CJN)
WITI x McKinsey:
An ongoing partnership where we highlight interesting McKinsey research, writing, and data.
Social media as a service differentiator: How to win. Let’s say you have a question about a product or some feedback for the company about your experience with it. Chances are you’ll head to social media. Customer service is a public affair, and more companies are turning to social as a full-service channel that can help customers and drive positive brand experiences. A new article lays out a framework on six key areas of social media servicing excellence.
Thanks for reading,
Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)
Why is this interesting? is a daily email from Noah Brier & Colin Nagy (and friends!) about interesting things. If you’ve enjoyed this edition, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you’re reading it for the first time, consider subscribing (it’s free!).