Brittney Griner was freed on Thursday after spending 10 months in a Russia jail on trumped up drug charges designed to make her a political prisoner amidst Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Ultimately it took the United States giving up a serious player in a prisoner swap, with international arms dealer Viktor Bout returning to Russia in the one-for-one deal.
There are hundreds of hot takes flying around the internet evaluating this prisoner swap like a deal at the NBA trade deadline — such is the political climate right now. Something as simple as freeing a wrongly imprisoned U.S. citizen needs to be scrutinized to earn political brownie points, and god forbid we ever admit something good happened independent of party affiliation. So let’s cut through the noise and break down exactly what it took to get this deal done.
Russia had the power, but still didn’t get what they wanted
Griner was an immensely valuable prisoner to Russia. Her stature as a famous athlete, paired with the inflated charges made her the perfect foil in a prisoner exchange deal. It ensured maximal public relations damage to the U.S. by keeping her behind bars, with the smallest potential risk to Russia by freeing her.
International security experts predicted Griner would be freed at the tail end of 2022, because there were assets Russia wanted back from the United States, with Bout being the most notable. When negotiations began both sides threw out ridiculous deals that neither would ever have accepted, and both sides knew it.
- The U.S. proposed exchanging Bout for both Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan
- The Kremlin offered Griner for Bout AND assassin Vadim Krasilov, who is currently serving a life sentence in Germany.
Russia had hoped the public relations pressure of Griner being imprisoned would lead to the U.S. exerting influence over Germany to free Krasilov, who is really the piece in all this that Russia wants back. Krasilov is believed to be an FSB agent (the equivalent of the CIA), and there is significant concern from Russia that he has provided information to the German government.
In addition, a large factor in keeping Griner behind bars was to hurt President Biden during November’s midterm elections. The Kremlin didn’t want to negotiate in good faith prior to the elections to ensure Biden didn’t have a political “win” before polls opened. We know this because an advisor to Putin said as much.
“In this tense situation, I think that he is thinking first and foremost about the upcoming midterm elections so he keeps emphasizing the need to bring back home the basketball player who was detained for drug smuggling. However, it’s not the main issue that we are concerned about.”
Ultimately keeping Griner did not harm democrats in the midterms, nor did Russia get back Krasilov. Make no mistake, this was not an easy “win” for Biden, which we’re about to get to — but this was far from a clear Russian victory either.
Viktor Bout was a steep price to pay, but he’s more or less powerless now
Viktor Bout is a monster, as you’d expect from a man nicknamed “The Angel of Death.” Among his exploits as an international arms dealer was his extensive supply of weapons used to influence numerous conflicts in Africa, most notably dealing with Charles Taylor in the First Liberian Civil War, with arms brought into the country by Bout going to child soldiers. In addition he had links to working with Muammar Ghaddafi in Libya, and Hezbollah.
The Kremlin’s extreme motivation for getting back Bout is steeped in mystery. There is little verifiable information about his personal or professional life, though it’s believed he did work with the KGB prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s also believed that his father and father-in-law held high-ranking positions inside the Russian government, so the desire to get him back may have been personally motivated as much as anything else.
Bout was 10 years into a 25-year sentence for “conspiring to sell weapons to a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist group,” which stemmed from a sting operation which led to Bout’s arrest in Thailand.
When he returns to Russia there is little-to-no evidence he will be a future threat. Much of his business hinged on the ability to operate for decades with anonymity, and his arms business was dismantled over a decade ago. There is no doubt other people have filled the vacuum and taken over arms dealing in his stead, but now Bout will be under strict scrutiny and surveillance by intelligence communities around the globe.
Paul Whelan was always going to be an impossible sell for the Kremlin to give up
In the wake of the Griner trade many are left wondering why former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan wasn’t brought home instead of Griner. Simply put: That was never, ever going to happen.
There are extensive reports that the U.S. government pushed to include Whelan in the deal for Bout, but this was a non-starter. As far as the Kremlin are concerned there is no current prisoner exchange deal that would make them consider sending Whelan back to the U.S. The former marine is being held on his own trumped up charges of spying.
Arrested in 2020, former president Donald Trump did not make an offer to bring Whelan home. Under the new administration several overtures had been made to try and return Whelan to the U.S., including an earlier offer which would have seen Whelan and Trevor Reed return home in exchange for Bout and pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko. However, the Kremlin resisted including Whelan, and ultimately Reed was brought home for Yaroshenko in a separate deal.
In short: Efforts have been made to bring Whelan home, and constantly rejected by the Kremlin. It’s unclear what would make them move off this position, but Whelan is considered an incredibly high-value asset by Russia, and at this time nothing will change their opinion.
After hearing about Griner’s release the Whelan family were pleased, and applauded the Biden administration for making “the right decision,” adding their acknowledgment that past proposed deals for Whelan have been impossible.
NEW from the Whelan family: "There is no greater success than for a wrongful detainee to be freed & for them to go home. The Biden Admin made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, & to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn't going to..”— Nick Kalman (@NickKalmanFN) December 8, 2022
This isn’t a sports trade, it’s about human life
Hopefully a resolution can be made to bring Paul Whelan home. Signs indicate ongoing negotiations between the U.S. State Department and The Kremlin to make this a reality, but it will take time. In the wake of Griner’s release there has been no shortage of over-simplification or overt lying in an attempt to make it seem like the U.S. government cared more about a famous basketball player than a marine.
These are complex geopolitical moves with ramifications extending far beyond the understanding of anyone without security clearance. In the end Russia had the power to get back a notorious criminal for a wrongly-imprisoned woman, because their legal system allows gross miscarriages of justice to take place as a tool for The Kremlin, while the U.S. system doesn’t.
The important thing is that Griner is free. Instead of losing nine years of her life on bullshit charges she will get to return home to be with her wife. Yes, the United States had to give up a notorious international arms dealer, but there is no price too high in bringing an American home. Bout is unlikely to be a threat moving forward, and Griner gets to put this horrific chapter behind her.
The rest is just noise. Life should be the focus today, and that makes this exchange a win. Anyone who can see past partisan bullshit sees that. Welcome home Brittney.