Russia frees WNBA star Brittney Griner in prisoner swap; US releases arms dealer Viktor Bout

In a high-profile prisoner swap on Thursday, Russia released WNBA star Brittney Griner in exchange for the release of notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, according to American officials.

President Joe Biden’s principal objective was fulfilled by the trade, which took place during a period of increased tensions over Ukraine, but it came at a high cost and left an American prisoner in Russia for over four years.

The deal, which marked the second such swap with Russia in eight months, secured the release of the most well-known American held overseas.

Griner, a two-time gold medallist at the Olympics, was wrongfully imprisoned for several months on drug-related accusations, and this took the issue to a whole new level of public attention.

The increasing pressure on Biden’s administration to repatriate Griner was highlighted by his approval of the release of a Russian felon once known as “the Merchant of Death.” This was especially true given the recent conclusion of her criminal prosecution and her subsequent transfer to a correctional camp.

Under the condition of anonymity, U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the negotiations but who were not authorized to speak publicly about the agreement before a White House statement confirmed the trade.

Russian and U.S. officials had conveyed cautious optimism in recent weeks after months of strained negotiations, with Biden saying in November that he was hopeful that Russia would engage in a deal now that the midterm elections were completed.

A top Russian official said last week that a deal was possible before year’s end. Even so, the fact that the deal was a one-for-one swap was a surprise given that U.S. officials had for months expressed their their determination to bring home both Griner and Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive jailed in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the U.S. government has said are baseless.

In a prisoner swap, Russia releases WNBA star Brittney Griner, and the US releases arms dealer Viktor Bout.
President Joe Biden’s principal objective was fulfilled by the trade, which took place during a period of increased tensions over Ukraine, but it came at a high cost and left an American prisoner in Russia for over four years.

The United States liberated Bout, a former lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Army who the Justice Department previously referred to as one of the most active arms dealers in the world. Bout, whose exploits were made into a Hollywood film, was given a 25-year sentence for conspiring to sell weapons worth tens of millions of dollars that U.S. officials claimed would be used against Americans.

In the end, the Biden administration was open to trading Bout for Griner’s freedom. One of the greatest WNBA players ever being detained led to an unusual level of public interest in a single detainee case, as well as significant pressure on the White House.

Griner became the most well-known American detained abroad after her arrest in February. Infusing racial, gender, and social dimensions into her legal tale and elevating each event to a matter of global significance was her status as an openly homosexual Black woman being imprisoned in a nation where the government has been hostile to the LBGTQ community.

Her case not only brought unprecedented publicity to the dozens of Americans wrongfully detained by foreign governments, but it also emerged as a major inflection point in U.S.-Russia diplomacy at a time of deteriorating relations prompted by Moscow’s war against Ukraine. The exchange was carried out despite deteriorating relations between the powers.

But the imprisonment of Americans produced a rare diplomatic opening, yielding the highest-level known contact between Washington and Moscow – a phone call between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov – in more than five months. In an extraordinary move during otherwise secret negotiations, Blinken revealed publicly in July that the U.S. had made a “substantial proposal” to Russia for Griner and Whelan. Though he did not specify the terms, people familiar with it said the U.S. had offered Bout.

In addition to risking hurting the U.S. government’s negotiation position for this and future accords by making the administration appear too desperate, such a public proposal earned a scolding reprimand from the Russians, who claimed they preferred to resolve such cases in private.

The announcement was intended to put pressure on the Russians and let the public know that Biden was doing his part.

In addition to the efforts of American authorities, the release came about as a result of months of backchannel negotiations between Mickey Bergman, the top deputy of Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the UN and a regular conduit in hostage talks.

The men had traveled abroad several times in the previous year to talk with Russian acquaintances about scenario swapping.

In February, Griner was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport after customs officers allegedly discovered vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage.

She entered a guilty plea in July, but a trial was still pending because in Russia, admitting guilt does not automatically end a case.

She admitted having the canisters in court, but said she didn’t have any malicious intent and that she had packed her bags in a hurry, which is why they were in there.

An emotional Griner apologized “for my mistake that I did and the disgrace that I caused on them” before being sentenced on August 4 and given a punishment her attorneys claimed was excessive for the act. “I pray it does not terminate my life in your ruling,” she continued.

After her imprisonment, her supporters mainly kept silent, but in May, after the State Department deemed her to have been wrongfully held, their stance shifted.

The exchange of Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot convicted in the United States of participating in a cocaine trafficking conspiracy, for Marine veteran Trevor Reed, sparked speculation that more such deals would be forthcoming.

Russian authorities have detained Whelan since December 2018. He was also labeled as having been wrongfully detained by the US government. He received a 16-year prison term in 2020.

When Whelan was left out of the Reed prisoner swap, demand mounted on the Biden administration to include him in any agreement that brought Griner home.

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