Brittney Griner freed, but for what?

A prisoner swap with unintended consequences


Peyton McKenzie

Photographic by Peyton McKenzie Photos from Drug Enforcement Administration/Wikimedia Commons and Lorie Shaull/Wikimedia Commons

Nicholas Pestritto, Staff Writer

The United States has made a costly mistake that will have an impact on our foreign relations with Russia and several other overseas countries. It all happened on Dec. 8, a day that will not be forgotten for a long time within the United States and Russian governments. 

The U.S. completed a prisoner swap with Russia to free Women’s National Basketball Association star Brittney Griner, who had been in Russian custody for nearly 300 days, with Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer. The swap could go down in history as one of the most fascinating ever done. 

Many people have never heard of Griner or Bout: one of them is a professional women’s basketball player and the other is a notorious weapons dealer known as “the Merchant of Death.” 

The situation between Griner, Bout and their respective nation’s governments came to light on Feb. 17, when Griner was detained for illegally possessing vape cartridges that contained oil derived from cannabis in her luggage. Up until the prisoner swap earlier this month, Griner had spent 294 days in the custody of the Russian government. 

Griner plays for the Phoenix Mercury, in the U.S. According to NPR, prior to her arrest, Griner was in Russia suiting up for Russian basketball team UMMC Ekaterinburg. 

Bout, according to The New York Times, has been accused of supplying weapons to Al Qaeda, the Taliban and rebels in Rwanda. He was arguably one of the highest profile Russians in U.S. custody. Along with that, a CNN report states that Bout was charged with conspiring to kill Americans, acquiring and exporting anti-aircraft missiles and providing material support to a terrorist organization. This all led to the 25-year prison sentence that he was serving in the U.S. at the time of the swap. 

Not only are these charges extremely concerning, but they set a precedent of what Russia deems acceptable in their standards of prisoner swaps: that they will refuse to release less serious criminals and use them as leverage to get back more consequential criminals that will support their regime. It gives insight into what Russia may want from other foreign countries when discussing these swaps. 

It is puzzling why the U.S. government gave into the demands of an illiberal democracy like Russia. Did they really exert all the possible options when deciding to go through with this swap? This was undoubtedly a one-sided trade that directly favors the Russians and Russian President Vladimir Putin, but there is still a lot more to examine. 

Bout is a dangerous person and his crimes should be taken with the utmost seriousness. However, it seems like the U.S. government did not fully consider what he has done and the true impact that this prisoner swap would have. Griner is a great athlete and has an illustrious resume: she’s a two-time Olympic gold medalist with the U.S. women’s basketball team and a six-time WNBA All-Star. These should not be forgotten, but it was not at all worth giving up a notorious international arms dealer who was sitting in a U.S. prison for a quarter-century, let alone one of the most concerning to the U.S. intelligence community. Now that Bout is out, who knows what he could do in Russia, and how he could potentially hurt the U.S. 

The fact that this was a one-for-one prisoner swap also says a lot. This swap happened while Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, is still being held in Russia for 16 years on an espionage charge. 

The U.S. should have made a harder push to swap Griner and Whelan for Bout and their stance on the issue should have been stronger. It would have made much more sense to attempt this two for one swap, mainly considering all the more serious things that Bout did compared to an almost confirmed to be fake espionage charge and a charge of drug trafficking. 

Even if a two-for-one prisoner swap was pushed off the table by the Russians, the Biden Administration should be aware that this swap could have a major impact on how President Biden and the rest of the U.S. is viewed by foreign nations. Our enemies may now see that we give in to the demands from dictator’s like Putin. Countries like China and Iran may now see the U.S. as weak. 

The U.S. is supposed to be and is known for being one of the main superpowers in the world. I do believe we still are, but this swap only made us look weaker. From the perspective of other countries, they may not think that we have our priorities in order. 

The U.S. should have at a minimum gotten Griner and Whelan for Bout. Two U.S. citizens for an extremely dangerous international weapons dealer makes the most sense. Biden and the rest of his administration should have seen if there was anything else they could have possibly done when working to get Griner home. It most definitely was not the best swap the U.S. could have done and further options should have most definitely been considered before completing the deal. 

Griner has since been released from the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, and in an Instagram post, she has pledged to help President Biden bring home Whelan, but realistically how much of an impact will this actually have? We can only hope that Whelan does not become another political pawn, or is it already too late?