August 5, 2022 - 7:00am

The Russian trial of US basketball star Brittney Griner concluded today; she was handed an eight-year sentence on cannabis charges that Washington considers bogus. But she may not serve much of that, with the Kremlin has indicating its willingness to discuss a reported US proposal to include her in a prisoner swap.

On offer as part of the exchange from the US is Viktor Bout, an infamous Russian arms-dealer who served as the inspiration for the 2005 film, Lord of War. In return, the US wants to secure not only Griner’s release but that of ex-marine Paul Whelan too.

As might have been expected, former President Donald Trump waded into the debate. On a conservative talk radio show, Trump criticised the swap, saying that “it doesn’t look like a very good trade”. He continued:

They don’t like drugs. And she [Griner] got caught. And now, we’re supposed to get her out — and she makes, you know, a lot of money, I guess. We’re supposed to get her out for an absolute killer and one of the biggest arms dealers in the world. Killed many Americans. Killed many people.
- Donald Trump

Trump is right to oppose the swap, if for the wrong reasons.

He believes that Griner, who has played in Russia during the WNBA off-season since 2014, really did bring drugs into Russia when she arrived in Moscow on 17 March — “I assume she admitted it without too much force because it is what it is”. Only Trumpian logic can seemingly acknowledge that she may have been tortured by the Kremlin while simultaneously taking its word as bond on the circumstances of her detention.

But the true problem with the deal is that it involves a civilian with no military, intelligence or other government affiliation (i.e. Griner). Going through with this swap would set a dangerous precedent that would put Americans abroad at greater risk.

An ex-Soviet air force officer, Bout is technically serving a 25-year sentence for conspiracy to kill US officials and provide aid to a terrorist group in Colombia. Bout is rumoured to be a close associate of ex-Putin gatekeeper and Rosneft boss Igor Sechin, one of Russia’s most powerful men. Washington arranged a sting operation and subsequently pressured the Thai government to extradite him. He might have made a fine Blackwater executive, but he is in jail because Washington saw him as a threat.

Whelan holds a dishonourable discharge from the US Marine Corps after allegedly stealing from the US Army in Iraq but had a subsequent career in private security, working for automotive supplier BorgWarner. He took increasingly frequent trips to Russia in the years before his detention. It is unsurprising the Kremlin saw him as a threat.

There is no reason to oppose including Whelan in such a swap. Regardless of the denials, in his case a security services’ connection is at least plausible. It is not in Griner’s.

If Washington is willing to countenance releasing Viktor Bout for Griner it risks setting dangerous model for other hostile actors to follow. Mexican cartels will be wondering what they may be able to get for one of the far more famous men’s basketball stars who like to vacation in territory they control. Groups such as the Islamic State may demand the release of their members in exchange for Western detainees.

State hostage-taking may not that commonplace, but the kidnap-for-ransom market is governed by the same overriding principles as any other. Releasing Griner in any spy swap would hand Putin a propaganda victory, weaken US national security and make the world a more dangerous place.

Maximilian Hess is a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.