X Close

The Brittney Griner prison swap sets a dangerous precedent

Brittany Griner

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.

Join the discussion

Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber

To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Notify of

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Jürg Gassmann
Jürg Gassmann
1 year ago

By “bad actors”, I suppose you would also include governments persecuting a journalist who published proof of their war crimes?

Peter Buchan
Peter Buchan
1 year ago
Reply to  Jürg Gassmann

Precisely. And presumably also a whistleblower (Snowden) who now lives in exile in Russia because he revealed NSA and GCHQ misdeeds. Not to mention countless journalists and civic activists either populating the jails of Washington’s and Brussels’ (hand-picked) “allies” or have been “cancelled” in the West.
As for Mr Hess’s core thesis, a (Russian!) saying springs to mind: “Intelligent thoughts always followed him…but he was faster”.

Last edited 1 year ago by Peter Buchan
Dustin Needle
Dustin Needle
1 year ago

I am curious as to why a female basketball player decided to use close-season to ply her trade in Russia, for a team which allegedly has ties to Putin. Entering as the build up of troops on the border was already an international crisis and just days before the US closed it’s embassy in Ukraine.
I know women’s basketball is considered a poor relation to men’s, salary-wise. And she’s not alone in going to Russia. But many WBNA players were making the opposite journey. Was she given any US government advice on whether to travel or not?
Not interested in what Donald Trump says. Presumably included as a bit of journalistic flim-flam to cover the lack of explanation above.

Last edited 1 year ago by Dustin Needle
Jake Dee
Jake Dee
1 year ago

I’m a bit surprised that Unherd didn’t mention the rather obvious elephant in the room, Brittney Griner is a lesbian BIPOC, therefore politically valuable. Spies and other agents get swapped because getting them back is good for other agent’s morale and having them in enemy hands is a major security risk. They can be pressured to spill the beans or flip to the other side. Sun Tzu wrote about getting spies to flip in the 5th century BC. Not really applicable to Griner of course, but having her and her BIPOC wife getting a White House reception would be a great photo op for a progressive president.
Another elephant worth mentioning is Vadim Krasikov. Allegedly a FSB Colonel, he’s imprisoned in Berlin for killing Zelimkhan “Tornike” Khangoshvili in 2019. Plenty of cloak and dagger skullduggery going on there, he’s sure to be high on Sergei Lavrov’s shopping list.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

never heard of him? her?…