Martin Pengelly in New York
Thu, 9 March 2023 at 5:01 am GMT
A former US diplomat who participated in efforts to free the WNBA star Brittney Griner from jail in Russia has harshly criticised the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and the Biden administration over their approach to diplomacy with Moscow.
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Cameron Hume, a career diplomat who was an ambassador under Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama, said: “For a secretary of state to not want to even get body language or two words from Sergei Lavrov about the situation in Moscow, in the Kremlin, in the people who are close to [Vladimir] Putin, during a time of war was striking to me.
“I would want those little tiny windows into that reality, given the stakes.”
Hume was speaking to One Decision, a podcast cohosted by Sir Richard Dearlove, a former chief of MI6.
Hume has recently worked with Bill Richardson, the former Democratic governor of New Mexico, US secretary of energy and UN ambassador, in attempts to free Americans held overseas.
In Russia, such efforts have concerned Griner and two former US marines, Trevor Reed and Paul Whalen.
Griner was arrested in February 2022, after vape canisters containing cannabis oil were found in her luggage at an airport. Reed was arrested in 2019 after an altercation with Russian police. Whelan was convicted of spying in 2020, a charge he denies.
Talks involving Richardson continued after the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, a military action that prompted Blinken to say he had no plans to meet his counterpart, Sergey Lavrov.
Hume said: “I think if you have problems with people, you’re a diplomat, you’re just supposed to meet with them. And that doesn’t convey that you’re weak, soft or anything else. It conveys you want to explore how you deal with the problem rather than ignore how you deal with the problem.”
Hume also said: “There’s been a general habit of American diplomacy, which has strengthened or become more dominant in the last 30 years, that if we don’t like what somebody’s doing, we will name them and shame them and we will then assume that’s all we have to do. And we’ll go out and have lunch …
“You can’t resolve complicated conflicts just sitting on your laurels and saying I’m morally superior.”
Griner was given a nine-year sentence and sent in November to a remote penal colony. In working for her release, Hume said, Richardson and his team approached Lavrov and were “able to get a little more clarity, and I think in a way that helped push forward what became the December swap”.
Griner was exchanged for the notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, who had been held in a US prison for 12 years, prompting some criticism that the US had paid too high a price for her release.
Hume said: “The justice department never wants to release any prisoner … There was a brief outcry. And I think two days later, they got over it.
“That’s not to dismiss the risks in trading. But … how do we view ourselves as a humane society [if we] allow a woman who was fundamentally innocent, a patriot who won gold medals for this country, to rot in a prison colony for nine years, so that Viktor Bout could serve the last six years of his 20-year sentence in an American prison?”
Reed was freed in April, in exchange for a convicted Russian drug trafficker. Whelan remains in Russian custody.
Hume also criticised the state department and its spokesperson, Ned Price, for remarks about another case Richardson’s team worked on, of an American journalist held in Myanmar and released in November 2021.
“If Bill Richardson had followed Mr Price’s advice, Danny Fenster would still be in jail. Mr Price claimed afterward that the state department worked tirelessly to get Mr Fenster released. That’s just untrue,” Hume said.
Blinken said this week that Price will soon transition to a policy advisory role.