By Paul-Andre Coulibaly; Image by Benzinga
On February 17, 2022, WNBA star Brittney Griner was detained upon landing in Moscow Sheremetyevo International Airport for illegal possession of vape cartridges containing hashish oil. A week later, Russia invaded Ukraine and thus began the Russia-Ukraine war. As tensions boiled between Russia and the U.S., President Biden announced Putin to be a “war criminal” and placed sanctions on Russia. The very next day on March 17, 2022, Griner’s pre-trial detention was extended to May 19, 2022. Griner’s pre-trial detention was extended another three times before she was finally handed a nine year sentence on August 4, 2022 (Zaru, 2022).
Months of intense negotiations followed. Russia stood firm on their stance that if they were to return both Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, Biden would have to release arms dealer Viktor Bout and facilitate the release of Russian assassin Vadim Krasikov from captivity in Germany. Russia wanted a fair trade. Griner and Bout were seen as an equal exchange of criminals, and Russia wanted their equivalent of Paul Whelan in Vadim Krasikov. The release of an arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death” in exchange for a WNBA player does not seem to balance the perceived scales of justice, but the prisoner swap was finally agreed upon on December 8, 2022 (Shear and Baker, 2022).
Initial reactions to the trade may be that Bout’s criminal history and tactical value to Russia brought a risk that outweighed the moral imperative to get Brittney Griner home, but a closer look at the situation suggests Biden achieved a decent deal for the United States. As a high profile name who spent a decade in U.S. custody, it is unlikely Bout will be able to operate at the same criminal level. Especially when you consider the effect his captivity had on his assets and crime network. Before being released, Bout had seven years remaining on his 25-year sentence. Brittney Griner had nine years to serve. Based on the numbers and Bout’s lack of immediate threat, the United States can feel good about the outcome of this exchange.
Ultimately, the winner of the trade will be determined by how dangerous Viktor Bout turns out to be. In 2010, Bout was described as “one of the most dangerous men on the face of the Earth” by Michael Braun, former chief of operations of the U.S. DEA (Yilek, 2022). The arms dealing market and weapons technology have surely changed during his sentence, making Bout’s operational value to Russia anything but a guarantee. Personally, I would be surprised if Viktor Bout ended up working a “normal civilian job” for the rest of his life. It would also be equally surprising if Viktor Bout was immediately integrated back into Russian organized crime. Only time will tell what Bout’s next move will be and what Putin really wanted to achieve with this deal. Will the United States spend millions to capture Viktor Bout once again, or is this the last we will hear about him? While we wait to find out, we can celebrate Brittney Griner’s safe arrival back home and look forward to catching her back on the court.
- Baker, Peter, and Michael D Shear. “Inside the Prisoner Swap That Freed Brittney
Griner.” The New York Times. The New York Times, December 9, 2022.
- Yilek, Caitlin. “Who Is Viktor Bout? Russian Arms Dealer Known as the ‘Merchant of
Death’ Swapped for Brittney Griner.” CBS News. CBS Interactive, December 9, 2022.
- Zaru, Deena. “Timeline of Brittney Griner’s Detention in Russia as US Secures Her
Release.” ABC News. ABC News Network, December 8, 2022.