Basketball star Brittney Griner’s release from a Russian prison, in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, is a better, more reasonable trade than it might seem at first glance.
The two seem cases hardly seem equivalent. Bout, who has served almost half of his federal prison sentence (11 of 25 years), is the world’s most notorious international arms trafficker, known as the “Merchant of Death.” Griner was arrested in March for carrying vape cartridges and hashish oil in her luggage, on the way to play for a Russian team during the WNBA’s off season.
So did President Biden free a dangerous criminal for a celebrity athlete? No, it’s not that simple.
By reasonable standards, Bout has probably served enough time already. As Slate reported in July, Shira Scheindlin, the now-retired judge who presided over his trial, said that, even at the time, she thought his sentence “was too high.” Bout was convicted of conspiring to sell arms to a Colombian guerrilla group known as FARC that the U.S. had designed as a terrorist organization. Scheindlin said she regarded Bout not as a terrorist but as “a businessman.” Still, under U.S. law at the time, 25 years was the minimum sentence for someone convicted of selling arms to terrorists, so she had no choice.
This past summer, when a possible prisoner trade was first floated, Scheindlin told the New York Times: “I think the United States’ interest in punishing him has been satisfied, and it would not be a bad equation to send him back if we get back these people who are important to us.”
By “these people,” Scheindlin—who is now retired from the bench, working as a private litigator and arbitrator—meant not only Griner but also Paul Whelan and Marc Fogel. Whelan is a former U.S. Marine who, in 2018, was arrested on espionage charges—which he and the U.S. government have denied. He has been in a Russian prison ever since. Fogel, an American teacher in Moscow arrested last year on charges similar to Griner, is serving a 14-year sentence of hard labor. U.S. officials tried to negotiate a trade that would free those two as well, but their Russian counterparts wouldn’t budge. So Biden decided to take the deal on the table. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday that his team will continue to work for Whelan’s release.
Bout was a veteran of the Soviet military and perhaps the KGB. After the Cold War ended, he formed an air-freight company that carried arms to war-torn countries in the Middle East and Africa. Law enforcement agencies tracked his movements but couldn’t do anything because selling arms isn’t illegal. In 2008, he was arrested in Thailand for arranging to sell weapons to undercover agents from the US. Drug Enforcement Administration, who were pretending to be members of FARC. Thai authorities extradited him to the U.S. for trial. He was convicted.
It is widely believed that Bout was secretly working for the Russian government during these trades. Certainly he at least did favors for the Kremlin, in exchange for their turning a blind eye to his deeds.
Griner’s arrest was mired in our present-day neo-Cold War politics. She probably would not have been arrested for such a trivial offense—and certainly wouldn’t have been dealt a 9-year sentence to a penal colony—had it not been for the hostile tensions growing out of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the West’s subsequent isolation of Russia.
Which is why it is remarkable that the two countries were able to strike even this trade. All other diplomatic forums are moribund. Russian emissaries to the commission that monitors the New START nuclear-arms-reduction treaty didn’t show up for the most recent routine session. It is therefore doubtful that the Griner-Bout trade will lead to some diplomatic breakthrough on the war. But at least it happened.