Griner and the Trading Game

Griner and the Trading Game

By Shae Mercer; Image by

Brittney Griner, an American Women’s Basketball star, was detained in Russia on February 17, 2022. Upon her arrival in Russia to play for the team UMMC Ekaterinburg, 0.75 grams of hashish oil in a vape cartridge were found in Griner’s bags. As cannabis and Hashish oil are illegal in Russia, Griner was immediately detained by Russian authorities. When news of Griner’s detainment reached the states it was met with substantial outcries by public figures, calling for everything possible to be done to bring Griner home. But, after a period of detainment Griner would be sentenced by Russian courts to 9 years in penal colony IK-2 in Russia. For a moment all hope seemed lost. But then, on December 8, 2022, just 10 months after she was initially detained, Griner was released from Russian prisons in a prisoner exchange and returned to her home and family in the United States, not to mention a welcoming community that showered her with affection and support upon her return.

This at first seems like a pretty open and shut victory for the U.S.. They were able to bring an American home and save her from an overly harsh sentence. But as other factors of the case, such as the situation of other Americans detained in Russia and the newly created complexity of the prisoner exchange game are observed, it becomes less clear of whether this truly is quite the victory it may at first appear to be.

Problematization of Griner’s Trade

1- Domestic Pressure, Celebrity, and Those Left Behind

Griner’s trade has been problematized by officials, politicians, analysts, and spectators alike for a number of reasons. The first reason is that Griner was not the only American “wrongfully” sitting in a Russian penal colony. Paul Whelan, a former U.S, Marine, has been imprisoned in Russia since December of 2018. He was detained while attending a friend’s wedding in the country, and accused of espionage, though he and the U.S. have denied such allegations. While there have been efforts to secure Whelan’s freedom through prisoner exchanges and negotiations, these have been completely unsuccessful, and have not been pursued with the same voracity that got Griner out of jail after only 10 months. Marc Fogel, an American teacher who worked at international schools, was detained in Russia in August of 2021 for possession of marijuana- 0.6 ounces of it, a charge eerily similar to Griner’s, though he was never declared as being wrongfully detained by the White House, and there has not been any pursuit by the U.S. government to secure his freedom. And beyond Whelan and Fogel, countless other American’s sit imprisoned in Russia and around the world on charges they dispute.

So, what made Griner’s case different from these other Americans who too are “unjustly” losing valuable years of their life behind barred doors in Russia? The answer is fairly evident to anyone who watched the news coverage of Griner’s detainment- her celebrity. Griner’s name in the American athletics community led to a large-scale social movement that placed heavy domestic pressures on the Biden administration to free Griner from Russia. Large public names such as Lebron James, Justin Bieber, and Gabrielle Union, along with the broader conglomeration of professional sports organizations and social-justice organizations, all “spoke-out” about Griner’s detainment and called on the Biden Administration to immediately take action, almost placing condemnation on Biden for Griner’s detainment for even occurring.

And Biden listened to this pressure. For the 10 months Griner was detained, Biden made public statement after public statement asserting that he would help secure Griner’s freedom and again and again condemning the Russian government for her detainment. And, his administration actually got to work, and secured a trade deal in a matter of months- which is impressive, especially when compared to the fact that her American peers have been sitting in Russian prisons for YEARS.

But what does this truly communicate about the U.S., and specifically the decision making of the Biden Administration? I’d argue that it tells other countries that the Biden administration is at the will of domestic pressure. It may even incentivize foreign nations to stirrup domestic pressure within the U.S. to coerce the government into negotiations with their nation. If all it takes for the U.S. government to seriously pursue something is Lebron James and the NBA disparaging them for inaction, then it doesn’t seem like it’d be too hard for an outside government to plant grievances in the minds of the American people.

2- An Unequal Trade and Unwise Strategy

Griner’s detainment and subsequent trade was problematized for reasons other than the Government pandering to celebrity voices. One of the most notable facets of Griner’s trade was whom she was traded for- Viktor Bout, a notorious arm’s dealer who has been called “The Merchant of Death”. Bout is responsible for smuggling weapons to groups such as the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and Rwandan rebels. He had been sentenced in 2011 to a 25 year prison sentence in the United States. And then suddenly, he was freed in a trade for a basketball player. Taking away the moral perspective of “a life for a life”, this trade makes little sense. Strategically, Bout is a far greater re-acquisition for Russia than Griner is for the United States, and far more dangerous to the world he is now free in. It was a bad strategic move by the U.S.- and some Justice Department officials, analysts, and politicians have expressed concerns over how this may incentivize hostile nations to wrongfully detain other prominent Americans abroad to pressure the U.S. into trading back to them their nationals who are high-level detainees in American prisons. For example, commentator Ben Shapiro on the Full Send Podcast asserted that the trade would undoubtedly incentivize nations to “kidnap” Americans abroad out of the hope of forcing the U.S. into trade deals.

When an official in the Biden administration was asked about the possibility of this incentive being created because of Griner’s unequal trade, they responded that, “Any inference that somehow this has become the norm would be mistaken, and I don’t think governments around the world would be wise to draw that inference… But in the rare case when there is an imperative to Americans’ home, which is a real priority for this president, there sometimes are no alternatives left, and a heavy price has to be paid.”. But, while this statement may be intended to act as a warning to other countries, the U.S.’s actions towards nations who express intention of testing these waters will say more than their words.

Finally, Griner’s trade for Bout raised one other prominent concern- with the trade of Bout, does the U.S. really have any significant trading cards left in the “trading game” with Russia? Unlike Russia, America’s prisons aren’t dotted with “wrongfully” detained Russian nationals, or really even prominent Russian figures in general- Bout was the last individual that Russia truly desired to acquire back from the United States. So, if the U.S. did seek to free Whelan and other wrongfully detained Americans from Russia post-Griner, who will the U.S. trade with, and how will they even incentivize a trade? And, will foreign nations expect higher-level individuals in return for lower-level American detainees? How will Griner’s trade affect the power balance and mechanisms of Russian-American prisoner exchanges?

Time’s Perspective  

With a year and a half having passed between Griner’s release and today, we have a little bit of perspective on how and if these concerns have come to fruition. A year and a half in the grand scheme of things is not that much time, but a few developments shine light on the effects of Griner’s trade on America’s position in the prisoner exchange game.

The U.S. and Domestic Pressure

Admittedly, determining whether Griner’s release has led to an increased perception of the U.S. as susceptible to domestic pressures is difficult. However, if analysts hope to observe the possibility of this, in the following years they should focus on civil unrest and domestic movements that call on the government to take specific measures or actions in an international context. If the goals of these movements are aligned with the interests of foreign nations, then it may be imperative to try and identify whether or not there is any foreign involvement in stirring up this domestic unrest. Findings of foreign involvement and interests in supporting or instigating these domestic groups would provide evidence that foreign nations perceive the U.S. government as susceptible to domestic pressure. Tying this to being caused, or worsened, by the Griner trade would be even more difficult- to the extent that I will leave the speculations to how this could be done to those of a more tenured understanding.

Incentivized Kidnapping

The second observable concern regarding Griner’s trade was whether it would incentivize other nations to “kidnap” or wrongfully detain Americans abroad in hopes of pressuring the U.S. into disequal trades later on. Looking at Russia specifically, in the last year and a half since Griner’s trade, 3 Americans have been detained, one of which was identified as “wrongfully” detained by the U.S. Government. This individual is Evan Gershkovich, a journalist for The Wall Street Journal who had been reporting in Russia and was detained on accusations of espionage. This could be indicative of Russia being incentivized to detain more Americans after their success with the Griner-Bout trade. However, it is also important to note that in the two years before Griner’s detention Russia had detained 4 Americans, and while they were all considered not “wrongfully” detained by the U.S., their reasons for detainment and sentences were similar to those that Griner faced.

And on a larger scale, one report in 2023 found that globally in 2022 the number of “wrongfully” detained Americans abroad actually fell for the first time in a decade. 21 wrongfully detained Americans were released in 2022, which was the “the largest number of publicly known wrongful detention releases in one year”. This finding would indicate that Griner’s release was part of a more widespread movement by the U.S. government to free wrongfully detained Americans abroad- and that Griner’s case just bore the highest burden of publicity. Furthermore, it may indicate that the attention around Griner’s release did not in fact lead to other countries feeling inclined to “kidnap” prominent Americans to use as political tools. As more time passes however, and the data from more years is analyzed, a more concrete trend may occur that may more clearly indicate whether the trade between Griner and Bout actually had consequences on hostile nations’ incentive and action towards detaining Americans to use as trading pawns.

The Strength of the U.S.’s Hand

Finally, there have been a few observable developments concerning how the U.S.’s strength of hand has been affected by trading Bout for Griner, specifically in relation to Russia. This is seen specifically in U.S. attempts to secure the freedom of Evan Gershkovich and Paul Whelan that have been fairly ongoing since Gershkovich’s detainment. Having given up Bout, the U.S. no longer retains any figures of significance that Russia is willing to trade Gershkovich or Whelan for. Instead, negotiations have shifted to Russia no longer asking for the U.S. to give them someone from inside the U.S. prison system, but to asking the U.S. to convince other nations to free their Russian detainees as part of a trade. In the case of Gershkovich, Russia has told U.S. officials that they would release Gershkovich if the U.S. could convince Germany to free Vadim Krasikov, a Russian hitman imprisoned in Germany. Getting Germany to cooperate required the U.S. to help secure an interest of Germany from the trade. Germany expressed that they would release Krasikov in a trade for Gershkovich if Alexei Nalvany, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, was freed from his imprisonment in a Russian Penal Colony. Nalvany is widely popular within Germany. However, before any official trade concerns could be established, Nalvany died of “natural causes” (according to the Russian Government, so take that with a grain of salt) in prison. Germany no longer had an incentive to release Krasikov, and the U.S. was dropped back at the starting line of trying to negotiate a trade deal with Russia.

This illustrates a drastic cut in the control that the U.S. has in the trading game. No longer do they have the ability to act autonomously in trades with Russia, but instead must work to convince additional actors to cooperate in trades. This creates room for variability and uncertainty, and puts the U.S. at an obvious disadvantage in relation to Russia’s position and autonomy in the trade. Securing trade interest for the U.S. will now require more time, resources, and diplomacy than in the past.

In addition, because of the bar of expectations the U.S. set in trading Griner for Bout, and the strategic disparity between the two individuals, foreign nations may now have increased expectations for the level of prisoner they secure in trades with the U.S.. For Whelan and Gershkovich, this could be a reason that securing their release has become so difficult. Russia thinks that if they consistently demand a high value trade for the two, eventually the U.S. will cave and supply one. Meanwhile, Whelan and Gershkovich lose more and more days of their lives to the misery of Russian Penal Colony life.


None of this is to diminish the Biden Administrations pursuit of Griner’s freedom- they should be applauded for their commitment to bringing a wrongfully detained American home. However, the fact that there are other wrongfully detained Americans also sitting in prison cells abroad, specifically in Russia, for far longer periods that Griner had to, really calls into question the motivations behind the Biden Administrations extremely publicized pursuit of her freedom. If Griner had not had so much celebrity, would she be standing free today on U.S. soil, or would she be like Whelan- laboring in a penal colony in Russia?

Furthermore, it is fair to acknowledge that her trade was not one based in the logic of strategy. The strategic worth of Griner, a basketball player, does not align with the strategic worth of Bout, an infamous arms dealer.  And while the U.S. claims to have pursued securing both Whelan and Griner in exchange for Bout, which would’ve been more of an equitable trade, the fact is that in the end Russia “won” the value battle of this prisoner exchange. They were the ones who controlled the game, from the beginning to the end. They set the rules, and stood behind them until the U.S. eventually followed. And beyond just the “value” of the prisoners exchanged, it seems that this trade may continue to have negative impacts on the U.S.’s power and position in prisoner exchanges, and specifically those with Russia, for years to come. It’s not yet clear to what extent this will play out, but this will become more observable as time’s perspective widens.       


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Stening, T. (2022, December 9). The difficult math of a prisoner swap: Why did the US trade Viktor bout, a notorious arms dealer, for Brittney Griner?. Northeastern Global News.

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