The news that Brittney Griner may be coming home brought a sigh of relief from millions of people who have advocated for her release since she was arrested in Russia in January. It is also almost certain to raise questions and controversy in certain circles, given what the United States has offered in exchange for her freedom.
Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport after a search found cannabis in vape cartridges in her luggage. The WNBA star has since confessed but said she was carrying the drug for medicinal reasons on the advice of physicians. Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the U.S. had “put a substantial proposal on the table” for her release: the release of Griner and jailed former Marine Paul Whelan in exchange for Viktor Bout. Bout is serving a 25-year sentence for conspiring to sell weapons to a Colombian rebel group that was on the U.S. terrorism list. Bout was a well-known arms trafficker prior to his arrest in 2008 in a Drug Enforcement Agency sting operation; he was convicted and sentenced in 2011.
On its face, the suggested prisoner swap looks like an uneven exchange — and it comes not long after State Department spokesman Ned Price warned that “using wrongful detention as a bargaining chip” would endanger Americans traveling in Russia and other countries that might seek to cash in such “chips” in exchange for prisoners held by the U.S.
Newsletter Editor Cameron Hood spoke with Global Editor Tom Nagorski about the news, the nature of the swap and the controversy and impact that may follow.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Cameron Hood: So, to start off, why are prisoner swaps complicated territory?
Tom Nagorski: Prisoner swaps are never easy, and you have to have some sympathy for the diplomats and behind-the-scenes people who carry them out, because it’s very murky territory. I think this case is particularly complicated and particularly controversial for a couple of reasons.
First of all, a prisoner swap will often be uneven in terms of the crimes or alleged crimes committed by one party versus the person you’re trading for. This one is a wildly uneven swap, even if you accept all the charges that have been levied against Brittney Griner in Russia, namely that she was carrying some vape cartridges with cannabis in them. Viktor Bout, the person in question on the Russian side, has been sitting in a federal prison in the United States, convicted of arms trafficking and serving a 25-year federal sentence.
He was convicted of agreeing to sell not just a few guns here and there, but tens of thousands of AK-47s and other weapons to U.S. federal agents in a sting operation many years ago. And before that, he was a very well-known arms trafficker. So what you have here even by the standards of uneven trades when it comes to prisoner swaps — no matter who you’re talking to, they’d agree this is a pretty uneven one and therefore will be controversial.
CH: For those who might not know, tell us more about Viktor Bout and why he’s significant.
TN: Americans know Brittney Griner very well. I think they have for a long time. They certainly know her better now. I doubt very many Americans know much at all about Viktor Bout. He was a Soviet military officer. He was actually from Tajikistan, the former Soviet republic, and soon after the Soviet Union fell, he began making an awful lot of money selling weaponry, smuggling weapons. He did a lot of arms trafficking in Africa, in the wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia in particular. He was absolutely known and on the radar of U.S. and European law enforcement, at Interpol and so forth. He was in that top tier of known international armed smugglers.
He got caught because the United States arranged an operation in Bangkok. Agents of the Drug Enforcement Agency offered an arrangement with Bout in 2008, in which they said they wanted to buy 30,000 AK-47s, some plastic explosives and other munitions for the FARC rebel group that was operating in Colombia. He agreed to the deal. The FARC at the time was running operations against the Colombian government and against American military operatives who were working with the Colombian government. They had been designated a terrorist organization, and what that meant was that Bout was not only convicted as an armed smuggler, he was also convicted of conspiring to smuggle weapons to a terrorist organization — and that carried a minimum 25-year sentence. And that is what put him into jail in 2011. And he’s been there ever since.
CH: Where will this swap be especially controversial?
TN: The controversy will be felt in different ways. First of all, law enforcement agents and federal prosecutors, whether they knew anything about Viktor Bout or not, are going to hate this because of the incredibly uneven playing field you’re operating on here, in that you have somebody who was convicted for that length of time, for that serious crime, on the one hand and Brittney Griner on the other.
You also have diplomatic considerations here. Policymakers, diplomats, ambassadors, they don’t like the precedent that suggests that if you are a foreign government and you’d like to get one of your own citizens freed from an American prison, perhaps all you need to do is grab an American citizen on your soil, charge them with something, hold them against their will and maybe you’ll get a great deal in return. Just a couple of months ago, the State Department spokesman said something to the effect that wrongful detention as a bargaining chip was a terrible thing and it would endanger Americans traveling in countries all over the world. I think he was right. And so again, I think a lot of people in the diplomatic corps will also not like this news.
CH: Why do you think Russia was interested in detaining Brittney Griner? Do you think there might be a particular rationale or calculus?
TN: Well, first of all, I don’t know that there’s any evidence that the Russians sought out Brittney Griner. I suspect what happened was, they found this in her luggage, and as it moved up the chain there, perhaps somebody at some point said, “We have a very high-profile American athlete here, about as high-profile as anyone in the world of women’s sports from the United States. And we’re charging her with a crime.” And perhaps someone somewhere said, “Let’s make a big deal with this.” We just don’t know.
We certainly know that the Kremlin has — well before this case and before the war in Ukraine — wanted Viktor Bout freed and has made various representations over the years to that effect. This is conjecture, but I think it’s pretty clear that they figured out what they had here [in Brittney Griner]. As opposed to the Marine Paul Whelan, as opposed to Trevor Reed, who was held for a while and freed earlier this year, they had someone who was a household name. They realized they had a much stronger bargaining chip.
And here in the U.S., no matter how opposed some people in law enforcement or in the diplomatic community or just some ordinary Americans might be to a trade like this, you’d have to figure that the pressure on the White House to do something was profound. We know about all sorts of advocates and organizations, athletes — LeBron James got involved on Brittney Griner’s behalf.
CH: So what should or could the White House have done?
TN: Obviously, we have to factor in that there was all this public pressure, and they didn’t have a lot of leverage here. At some point, there was a judgment made. That a kind of unpalatable decision or an uncomfortable one, at least, was worth making to bring Brittney Griner home.
CH: Based on the nature of prisoner swaps and how complicated and controversial they are, how do you think this could potentially pave the way forward for diplomatic relations between Washington and Moscow?
TN: I think the only thing you can say with some certainty is that the White House — assuming she does indeed make it home — is going to champion this as an example of good diplomacy. It’s something of a win, even if a lot of people won’t see it that way.
I would be stunned if [Russian President] Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin don’t make a great deal of hay out of the fact that Viktor Bout is coming home, if indeed he is. And you have to believe that U.S. officials of all stripes and all politics will be at least quietly upset by that fact. In other words, the nature of an uneven swap is such that it allows the person who gets the greater criminal, if you will, to claim victory in some way. And we know Vladimir Putin makes great political hay out of much smaller things.
If he chooses, and I suspect he will, he can make a victory for himself — in a PR sense and a real sense as well — of the fact that he has brought this man home. Russians have said for years, they’ve alleged that Viktor was captured and convicted in a case of entrapment, that he was not a terrorist, and that he should have never been in prison in the first place.
CH: If Viktor Bout is returned, how do you think that will play out in Russia domestically, for both Putin and the Russian government in general?
TN: Listen to Vladimir Putin, his government, his aides, to Russian media. They invent great victories when they aren’t there. So I suspect there will be blanket coverage of the return of Viktor Bout. I suspect they’ll play it to the hilt. And whether it leads then to Russians — or, by the way, other governments — grabbing American citizens, for their own purposes to free someone else or as a bargaining chip for some other matter, we just don’t know. But that again goes to some of the issues that people will have with this arrangement. Although at the end of the day, it has to be said it is good news that Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan may be coming home.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.