Pelosi’s Last Cold War & The Griner Prisoner Dilemma

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi lands in Taiwan
Pelosi lands in Taiwan. Photo: Taiwanese Foreign Ministry
Julia Ioffe
August 2, 2022

After weeks of speculation and fears that she might launch World War III, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi finally touched down Tuesday night in Taipei, for an official visit to Taiwan. Contrary to proposed scenarios, the Chinese military did not shoot down her plane, though they did proceed with live-fire military exercises in the Taiwan Strait over the weekend, and, this morning, sent military jets right up to the border, a demonstration of just how easily and quickly they could reach the island. A video allegedly taken in Fujian province, right across the water from Taiwan, appeared to show Chinese tanks rolling across the beach. China even banned imports of Taiwanese sweets as punishment for the Speaker’s visit. 

But none of it kept Pelosi from landing. Dressed in a pink pantsuit and white pumps, Pelosi strode, unimpeded, onto a nighttime Taipei tarmac and reiterated “America’s unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant democracy.” She also invoked Joe Biden’s favorite foreign policy mantra, saying that “the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy.” It was a fitting tip of the hat to the president who hadn’t wanted  her to go at all but, as a former senator who believes in the separation of powers, was reluctant to contradict her in public, only saying once that the U.S. military “thinks it’s not a good idea right now.” 

Meanwhile, back home, a group of 26 Senate Republicans, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, issued a statement of support for Pelosi, a rare moment of bipartisanship in Washington and a testament to Pelosi’s sharp political instincts heading into the midterms. 

The trip has caused a lot of heartburn here in Washington. Of course, this being Washington, the town became stuck in a loop of process-obsessed mirco-stories: Would she or wouldn’t she go? Who said what to whom behind the scenes? The answers to both arrived soon enough: Yes, she went. And yes, both the White House and the State Department were against the idea and told her as much, as was clearly telegraphed, though neither could do much to stop her because she is the Speaker of the House and we have a thing called the separation of powers. That’s it. Those are the answers to those questions. 

But why did Pelosi decide to go in the first place and why did she decide to go now? And why did Beijing react with such fury, threatening “resolute and strong measures,” if the visit went ahead? Those were the questions that interested me.

“How Do You Not Go?”

Pelosi has been a China hawk for almost as long as she’s been in Congress. As she noted back in 1989, she represents a district that has a massive Chinese-American population that cares deeply about what happens back in China. But Pelosi also came of age politically at the denouement of the Cold War, when a generation of people really believed in the struggle between democracy and totalitarianism, between human rights and freedom on one side, and subjugation and censorship on the other. Long before Iraq and the drone wars became the foreign policy touchstones for millennials and zoomers, this was the defining fight of Pelosi’s generation. 

In 1989, after the massacre of student protesters at Tiananmen Square, she and other members of Congress confronted the Chinese ambassador to the U.S. and demanded answers while also pleading for clemency for those students sentenced to death. (It didn’t work.) In 1991, she made a trip to Beijing, where she and two colleagues went right to Tiananmen and unfurled a small black banner which, in white Chinese characters and in English translation, said, “To those who died for democracy in China.” It was a fittingly Cold War sentiment.

This week’s provocations, in other words, are not out of character for Pelosi, and, in some ways, the more fuss Beijing makes over her trip, the better for Pelosi. “The real reason is she wants to stick it to China,” a source familiar with Pelosi’s thinking told me when I asked why Pelosi is going to Taiwan now. “This is coming from someone who has been consistently tough on China for 30 years, who has always been the most forward leaning on human rights in China. This is a very natural thing for her to do.”

Still, the timing of the trip, coming at the tail end of her last term as Speaker and what will likely be her last term in Congress, is curious. Some of it is just simple Washington logistics: the House is in recess, which is when members of Congress tend to take these kinds of trips. Several people I spoke to also pointed out that this trip was originally planned for April, when the war in Ukraine was just entering its second month and all eyes naturally turned to China and Taiwan: were they next? Pelosi’s bags were packed, her speeches were written, her staff was boarding buses for the planes to take them to Taipei when the call to stand down came: the boss had tested positive for Covid. The trip was off. 

Curiously, Beijing was largely silent that time around. “She was set to visit Taiwan in the spring but contracted covid and didn’t go. The Chinese certainly protested the possibility of her trip, but they have reacted much more severely this time. They didn’t make a big deal of it that time,” said Richard Fontaine, the head of the Center for a New American Security. “Members of Congress go to Taiwan all the time, and have done so this year. The stepped-up Chinese response now stems at least in part from Xi’s domestic politics.”

The source familiar with Pelosi’s thinking agreed. “There was no buildup to any of this in April,” this person said. “[Secretary of State] Tony [Blinken] didn’t have an issue with it, [National Security Advisor] Jake [Sullivan] didn’t have an issue with it.” The source went on: “Look, the N.S.C. and State, these are people who are quite cautious by nature. But I just don’t think she sees it in quite the same way. It was fine in April, why isn’t it fine now? These are some of our best friends in the region, and we’re just going there and having meetings.” Now that the Chinese government has upped the ante to such an extent, now that Pelosi herself has published an op-ed in the Washington Post arguing that “it is essential that America and our allies make clear that we never give in to autocrats,” what else could she do? “Now that we’re at this point,” said the source, “how do you not go?” 

From the Chinese perspective, however, there is a massive difference between April and August. Chinese premier Xi Jinping is now that much closer to an autumn Party Congress where he hopes to lock in a third, five-year term as general secretary, upending carefully set precedent to rein in the man at the top. Now, Xi is heading into the Congress with a far less compelling portfolio. The “dynamic zero” Covid policy that has meant locking down broad swathes of the population—at one point, there were more people under lockdown in China than there are people living in the United States—has resulted in a lot of public discontent. And, worse still for the Chinese government, it has ground down the country’s economic growth almost to zero. Taiwan, and the nationalist mood at home, can provide a convenient outlet for any domestic grumbling—and is a bit of a personal project for Xi.

“Xi is making Taiwan into a legacy issue for himself, which is in some ways analogous with what [Vladimir] Putin is doing in Ukraine,” said Fontaine, who is currently working on a book about the issue. “As Xi gets closer to the Party Congress this fall, and with a population resentful of Covid lockdowns, he may conclude that it’s not in his interest to let Pelosi’s trip pass without response.” 

“Other things have happened since April, too,” Fontaine went on. “Biden has said publicly that the United States would defend Taiwan if attacked and there has been a stream of official and unofficial visits to Taiwan. The Chinese argument is that such acts show the U.S. is attempting to change the status quo, while Washington believes such gestures help preserve the status quo.” As a result of these factors, Fontaine said, “There is a premium now on appearing tough on Taiwan than when the Speaker was originally set to go this spring.”

Another important factor, noted Meg Rithmire, a scholar of internal Chinese politics at the Harvard Business School, is the semblance of Xi’s control. Even if he is the undisputed, all-powerful leader of the world’s most populous country, he has to constantly cultivate that image—just as, Rithmire noted, Coca Cola continues to spend and spend and spend on advertising despite being the unquestioned king of soft drinks. “Xi is unchallenged but he is also super paranoid,” Rithmire said. Allowing things like the Hong Kong protests to go on unchallenged or to allow Pelosi to waltz into Taiwan without pushback “threaten to become a symbol that Xi Jinping can’t govern.” And you can’t have that going into the Party Congress, which is just a couple of months away.

Moreover, this all looks incredibly provocative from Beijing’s perspective, Rithmire said. Despite American protestations that the U.S. has a separation of powers and that Biden couldn’t have stopped Pelosi from going, Chinese officials find this very hard to believe. “For all of Xi Jinping telling people domestically that the American system is a disaster that is falling apart, they see everything we do as strategic,” Rithmire explained. “They don’t understand that Biden didn’t dispatch Pelosi, who is a member of his own party, because that would never happen in China.” 

Meanwhile, from the Taiwanese perspective, Pelosi could be giving the island too much hope, one that isn’t backed up by enough hard (read: military) substance. “The fear is you’re accelerating the timeline of Taiwan doing something like declaring independence,” Rithmire said. “That happening would be a disaster because that would turn this into a kinetic conflict”—that is, a full-scale war.

Pelosi’s people, of course, dismiss that idea. Her going to Taiwan is not going to cause World War III, the source familiar with her thinking told me. “I assume that if she thought otherwise, she would not be going,” the source said. “They say these things often, and it makes sense for them to ramp up the rhetoric. But what interest would it serve for them to actually start something?” 

In the end, after all, Pelosi is an experienced and deeply intelligent politician who knows exactly what she’s doing. “Pelosi is very happy to be persona non grata in Beijing,” the source concluded. “Being a foreign policy story for a week is one thing. Starting something bigger than that—she’s not a crazy person.”

Bad Faith and Bad Luck

WNBA star Brittney Griner appeared in a Russian court yet again today, and it looks like her case will go into closing arguments on Thursday. In the meantime, the Kremlin has finally responded to the prisoner-swap deal put forward by the White House weeks and weeks ago. As I first reported back on July 12, the Biden administration offered the Russian administration something substantial but the Kremlin appeared absolutely uninterested in playing ball. Indeed, on Monday the Russians suggested that they wouldn’t trade Griner just for the jailed arms dealer Viktor Bout, whom White House had reportedly offered up. They also want Vadim Krasikov

Krasikov is a high-ranking agent in a special FSB unit who was convicted of killing a Chechen fighter in a Berlin park in broad daylight in 2019 and was only sentenced in December to life in prison. Not only has he just started serving his sentence (unlike Bout), but he is not even in U.S. custody, meaning he is not the Biden administration’s prisoner to trade. 

On the record, U.S. officials have slammed the Russian counter-offer. N.S.C. spokesman John Kirby said it was “a bad faith attempt to avoid a very serious offer” and White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said the administration doesn’t “see it as a serious counter-offer.” Off the record, they are also pretty mad, but also kind of resigned. It’s not like they didn’t see this coming. 

Griner is unlucky in many ways. She is unlucky that, as a female professional basketball player in America, she is paid only one-third as much money as she could earn in the Russian league, in this case in the Siberian city of Ekaterinburg. (Many WNBA stars moonlight in Russia or China every year to make themselves whole financially.) She is unlucky that she forgot some vape cartridges in her luggage on her way back to a zero-tolerance country with a notoriously brutal criminal justice system. She is unlucky that the border agents caught her and that, because she is an American, the FSB was immediately called in. 

She is also unlucky that she doesn’t speak Russian and didn’t understand what she was being asked to sign. She is unlucky that Russia has gotten into the habit, especially frequently over the last few years, of essentially kidnapping Americans for the express purpose of trading them for Russians who are in American prisons, even if the Americans were framed or were carrying medical marijuana and the Russians shot people in Berlin parks while children played nearby. And she is especially unlucky that, by the time she was arrested, Putin already knew he was going to invade Ukraine and she became an even more high-value hostage than she otherwise would have been.

That is quite a stack of bad luck and it could have been the end of it, had something else not made Griner’s predicament even worse: the American hashtag campaign. According to my sources, administration officials told Griner’s family that these deals are best worked out quietly and out of the public eye. It gives the negotiators more flexibility and the lack of publicity keeps the hostage’s value from getting so high that their captors feel like they can ask an impossible price. (One former high-ranking national security official who dealt extensively with the Russian government totally rejected the oft-invoked hypothetical that LeBron James would have been released immediately if he’d ever somehow been arrested in Russia. “If they had LeBron, he’d never get out!” this former official scoffed. That is, LeBron is such a celebrity and would make such a high-value detainee that the Russian government could ask for Alaska in exchange for his freedom.)

Unfortunately, this is exactly the route Griner’s family chose. Apparently unsatisfied with the pace of negotiations—though they can often take years—they went public. Along with Griner’s teammates, they began a high-profile #FreeBG campaign. It all seemed very… American, and very American sports. I went on a couple sports podcasts recently to discuss Griner’s case and the hosts were unanimously stunned to discover that this was going to be a difficult, long, and not particularly sunny process, and that Griner might very well serve some of her sentence. “Mighty Ducks” this was not. For some reason, this cohort believes that hashtags have some kind of magical power to coerce even the baddest of the bad guys. If we just all get behind this and wear Free BG t-shirts and use the FreeBG hashtag, the thinking seems to go, neither Putin nor the millions of people who fill the ranks of his police state stand a chance against our positive energy.

In fact, it is having the very opposite effect. For one thing, it is raising the stakes—but not in a way that helps Griner. It is inflating her value as a hostage which makes it far more difficult for the U.S. to negotiate her release. This is how we got to the Russians asking for something impossible, like asking for a prisoner that isn’t even in U.S. custody and who, like Bout, was convicted of a crime that is wildly worse than the one Griner stands accused of. I was struck by something my friend Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian said when I shared the screen with him on MSNBC last week. Rezaian, who had been held in an Iranian jail for nearly two years before the Obama administration quietly negotiated his release as part of the Iran nuclear deal, said that Blinken publicly announcing that they had made an offer to Russia was unusual and probably meant “that things weren’t moving in the right direction.”

Furthermore, the domestic public pressure campaign to win Griner’s release is putting pressure on the exact wrong person: Joe Biden. Guess who has pretty much no control over Griner’s freedom at the moment? Joe Biden. Guess who does? Vladimir Putin. Guess whom this hashtag campaign is not putting pressure on? Vladimir Putin. Guess whom this campaign is hurting? Joe Biden. Guess who benefits from that? Vladimir Putin.

To wit, I reached out to Christopher Bouzy, of Bot Sentinel, to ask him if Russian bots—or “inauthentic accounts,” as Bouzy calls them—have picked up on and gravitated toward this discourse. “The short answer is yes,” he told me. The inauthentic accounts, which are sometimes manned by humans, are fewer and have less reach since the Russian invasion of Ukraine (and since the platforms started cleaning house in the aftermath), but Bouzy and his colleagues have still noticed them glomming onto the Griner discourse online. “We’ve seen them jumping into conversations about her release on both sides,” Bouzy said. “You’ll see them saying, Well, she shouldn’t have had what she had on her. They’ll also say, Why isn’t Biden doing more to get her released, he’s leaving her out to try to dry. This is what you’ll see them do, playing both sides.” 

These accounts, according to Bouzy, are affiliated with the Russian government and are trying to “amplify” the debate, the classic Russian bot tactic. Here, though, it also works to make Griner’s release more difficult to orchestrate by making it a louder, more contentious issue. 

Here’s what is most likely to happen: Griner’s trial will wrap up this week or next. She will be found guilty and sentenced, likely to something less than the maximum ten-year sentence, which the Kremlin will flaunt as a gesture of great magnanimity. The negotiations will continue and the Russian government will continue asking for trades that will stick in Washington’s craw for one reason or another, which will only increase domestic pressure on Biden, not on Putin. Eventually, a swap will happen, and it will be one that will be lopsided in Moscow’s favor, even if it is a two-for-two deal, as any swap is set to include former Marine Paul Whelan

Whelan, after all, was framed with a USB drive and Griner forgot some vape cartridges in her bag, but they will be swapped for Russians who killed people or sold weapons at scale or did other really, really bad things. And this will just increase the incentive for Moscow to take more Americans hostage in the future, continuing the cycle on and on and on.