Brittney Griner prisoner swap: Was the US right?

Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP

Fact Box

  • Brittney Griner is an American member of the 2014 Women’s National Basketball Association Champion Phoenix Mercury. On February 17, 2022, she was arrested in a Russian airport on a drug offense, and sentenced to prison for nine years. 
  • On December 8, 2022, Griner was released in a one-for-one prisoner swap for international arms dealer Viktor Bout after months of high-level negotiations. During negotiations, four-year detainee US Marine Paul Whelan was considered along with Griner, but was strictly denied by the Kremlin. 
  • In a Seton Hall Sports poll, 62% of Americans believed Griner was being used as a political pawn by the Russian government. About 43% thought her imprisonment was unfair, while 41% thought the opposite.
  • One of the most high-profile “prisoner swaps that freed Americans” was between the US and Russia was the 1962 swap between Soviet spy Rudolf Ivanovich Abel and American pilot Francis Gary Powers. Fifty years later, the trade was featured in Steven Spielberg’s 2015 Bridge of Spies.

Elisa (No)

Many countries on the Asian continent, not just Russia, have severe penalties for drug possession. Singapore, for example, has executed people for trafficking cannabis. Common sense dictates that one should never bring drugs into any country with not only harsh laws about possessing them but nations that are currently actively opposing one’s home country. Another layer to Griner’s detainment is how the owner of the team she plays for in Russia is a 'Putin-aligned' Russian oligarch billionaire who owns a mining company with alleged links to organized crime

While many Americans would be thrilled to receive Griner's $664,544 salary over three years, along with sponsorships and endorsements in America, this is not enough for the privileged elite class like Griner, who has openly decried the country that just rescued her. The Biden administration first asked for a deal including Paul Whelan, a former Marine who served his country with honor, and Griner, but he was left behind today—forgotten in the wake of woke ideology such as intersectionality that ranks Griner's celebrity, skin color, and sexual orientation status above Whelan's non-famous, white, straight, maleness. 

The man she was traded for is the dangerous arms gun-runner Viktor Bout, known as the 'Merchant of Death.' He is responsible for the deaths of countless thousands through his weapons trafficking, who will aid the Kremlin in its expansionist, Stalinist, and anti-American goals. Trading Griner for Bout while leaving behind Whelan and other Americans similarly imprisoned in Russia is a rushed, bad decision that should not have been conducted in this manner. Thousands will die because of this lopsided and unfair trade while emboldening terrorists and rogue states worldwide to kidnap or arrest Americans to extract what they want from us.  

Curtice (Yes) 

In a perfect world, the United States should not engage in prisoner swaps with other countries. But, as we do not live in a perfect world, particularly when it comes to international relations, sometimes we must engage with bad actors to effect a net positive outcome. Such is the case with the prisoner swap that concluded with the release of Brittney Griner from Russian custody. This is one of the highest-profile prisoner swaps since the end of the Cold War, due in part to Griner’s celebrity status as a WNBA all-star.

The United States doesn't always live up to its constitutional ideals of liberty, freedom, and justice. Yet, it is much closer to those ideals than practically any other country, certainly Russia. After her experience in Russia, Griner may even have a greater appreciation of those constitutional guarantees than she did before.  

On the surface, this would appear to be an uneven swap of prisoners. And there is reason that some military and intelligence officials are concerned that convicted international arms dealer Viktor Bout, known as the 'Merchant of Death,' will return to his former vocation. That would potentially put more lives at risk. But, presumably, he is now on the radar of the United States as well as other allies. International relations are often very complex and not for the faint of heart or idealists. Ultimately, the United States must do whatever it can to secure the release of any American citizens who are illegally or improperly detained in other countries, including retired US Marine Paul Whelan, who has been in a Russian prison since 2018.

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