Griner was exchanged for one of the world’s most infamous arms dealers: Russia’s “Merchant of Death” Viktor Bout.
For Griner, who was detained in Moscow on a drug charge one week before Russia invaded Ukraine, the outlook had perhaps never looked darker. There was one tiny ray of hope, however.
“We haven’t found common ground yet, but, undoubtedly, Viktor Bout is among those being discussed, and obviously we are hoping for a positive result,” Putin’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov told Russian news agencies in mid-November. “The Americans are showing certain activity and we are working on this through appropriate channels.”
“We are not going to comment on the specifics of any proposals other than to say that we have made a substantial offer that the Russian Federation has consistently failed to negotiate in good faith,” said U.S. officials in a terse response. “The U.S. Government has continued to follow up on that offer and propose alternative potential ways forward with the Russian government.”
“The Russian government’s failure to seriously negotiate on these issues in the established channel, or any other channel for that matter, runs counter to its public statements,” the statement concluded.
But Russia, it seemed, was telling the truth.
“Brittney Griner released by Russia in 1-for-1 prisoner swap for arms dealer Viktor Bout,” reported CBS News yesterday.
“CBS News was first to report the swap, which took place in the United Arab Emirates, citing a U.S. official,” CBS continued. “The exchange agreement negotiated with Moscow in recent weeks was given final approval by Mr. Biden within just the last week, according to sources familiar with the deal.”
Griner’s detention had long been a black eye for the Biden Administration. Not only was Brittney Griner an outspoken progressive activist for Democratic causes, but she was also a first-time Democratic Party voter — who voted for Joe Biden.
Griner made this clear in a letter she wrote to President Joe Biden on Independence Day pleading for his help.
“I’m terrified I might be here forever,” the WNBA basketball star confessed. “I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don’t forget about me and the other detainees.”
“Please do all you can to bring us home,” Griner begged the President.
“I voted for the first time in 2020 and I voted for you,” Griner told Biden. “I believe in you. I still have so much good to do with my freedom that you can help restore. I miss my wife! I miss my teammates! It kills me to know they are suffering so much right now. I am grateful for whatever you can do at this moment to get me home.”
There was also the embarrassing episode of the scheduled call between Griner and her family in the U.S. which didn’t happen because the U.S. State Department office involved didn’t staff Saturdays.
Now that Griner is free, the White House is taking a victory lap. But there is a catch: Viktor Bout.
Even those ecstatic about Griner’s release may be feeling a bit nervous about the cost, and not just in terms of a dangerous, convicted criminal and arms trafficker being at large in the world again.
There might also be a heavy political cost to be borne by President Biden and the Democratic Party for the trade.
Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan remains a political prisoner in Russia, left behind in the swap.
“I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four year anniversary of my arrest is coming up,” Whelan told CNN in a phone interview after Griner’s release. “I was arrested for a crime that never occurred. I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here.”
Abroad, President Biden’s allies — including some he has been at odds with since taking office — are taking credit for the swap. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself, claimed credit for orchestrating the successful exchange in a joint statement.
At home, Biden’s political opponents at home are making no secret of their displeasure at what many are calling a major win for Russia.
“Viktor Bout has the blood of hundreds, if not thousands, of innocents around the world on his hands,” Republican Sen. Tom Cotton told Breitbart Editor-in-Chief Alex Marlow during a recent interview. “Don’t get me wrong, Brittney Griner was wrongly detained and used as a negotiating chip with the Biden administration and we should have been engaged in efforts to try to secure her release.”
“But to exchange her, who — to be fair — did violate the laws of a foreign country to which she was traveling, in return for one of the world’s most notorious arms dealers is folly to the greatest degree,” Cotton said.
“Viktor Bout is known as the merchant of death for a reason,” Sen. Cotton told Breitbart News. “It’s not like he’s going to retire to the Black Sea and peacefully live out his golden years in a quiet retirement. Vladimir Putin wanted him out for a reason.”
Biden’s political opponents aren’t the only ones complaining about the trade.
“It’s really upsetting to me,” Derek Maltz, who was in charge of the DEA sting operation that netted Viktor Bout in 2008, told ABC News in reaction to Bout’s release. “The DEA was asked to help take this guy down because he was such a national security threat.”
“Bout was ready to sell a weapons arsenal that would be the envy of any small country,” Maltz said of arresting Bout. “This is a great day for Brittney Griner and for America, but to make the exchange, all Americans are at greater risk with international travel.”
Perhaps the U.K.’s Daily Mail summed the Biden Administration’s situation up best: “Moment WNBA star Brittney Griner was told she was going home in trade for Russia’s grinning Merchant of Death arms dealer Viktor Bout at Abu Dhabi airport in deal brokered by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince.”
It’s a clear sign that even Biden’s biggest cheerleaders in the press are having mixed feelings about this decision.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)