I have some thoughts about the Exchange, but I don’t hold to any of them very dearly. I think it’s a shame that the United States had to give up Viktor Bout, who’s such a genuinely bad guy that it was necessary for Nicholas Cage to dial his actual badness down a few notches in the film (for what it’s worth I think that Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Claw is a better approximation of Bout). I absolutely do not like the precedent of trading someone like Bout for an apolitical detainee; none of us have any idea what Griner was carrying in her luggage, or what her expectations were given previous experience with the Russian authorities (I would not be at all surprised that there was an informal agreement to look the other way on the carrying of small quantities of drugs for personal use by Americans before the war started), but her detention was clearly, in context of the war, a decision by Moscow to take hostages. At the same time, it’s pretty unlikely that at this point Bout is going to make any serious contribution to the forces of chaos and evil in the world; the networks and conditions that enabled his success are all gone now, and he’ll quite likely enjoy a quiet retirement punctuated by occasional appearances at Kremlin events. FWIW I think that if Tom Brady or Derek Jeter had been detained the Russians would have demanded to get even more in return (“We’ll never give you even a sack of potatoes for Jeter, you goons!” would undoubtedly have been the LGM war cry in the latter case). Notwithstanding his Trumpiness I also think it’s unfortunate that Whelan remains in detention, although as Biden indicated it’s clear that the Russians view him as a different kind of hostage.
With respect to the optics I think the administration handled it reasonably well, especially with regard to the sense that we as the United States are no longer dealing with a civilized country; we’re dealing with thieves and gangsters, and while you have to deal with thieves and gangsters you don’t have to respect them. The idea Russia is now the kind of country that effectively kidnaps people for ransom is a way that I would like for observers to have about the Putin regime.