Brittney Griner—the WNBA star recently sentenced by a Russian court to nine years in prison for bringing vape cartridges with trace amounts of hashish oil into the country—is almost definitely not a spy. She knows no state secrets, no names of any moles, no launch codes. Her strategic value to the United States is approximately zero.
But American officials are now contemplating a controversial swap to bring her home: Griner for Viktor Bout, also known as “the Merchant of Death.”
Bout was an arms dealer born in the Soviet republic of Tajikistan, and in November 2011, he was convicted in federal court in Manhattan of conspiring to kill Americans. He is serving a 25-year sentence at the federal prison in Marion, Illinois.
When Bout was sentenced in 2012, Preet Bharara—the U.S. attorney who oversaw Bout’s prosecution—said this: “Viktor Bout has been international arms trafficking enemy number one for many years, arming some of the most violent conflicts around the globe.” Referring to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Bharara added: “He was finally brought to justice in an American court for agreeing to provide a staggering number of military-grade weapons to an avowed terrorist organization committed to killing Americans.”
Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me in an email that Bout “believed the U.S. was his enemy and he sold weapons to those who targeted American personnel.” She continued, “There is no such thing as a former Soviet intelligence officer. Just look at Vladimir Putin.”
There are an estimated 60 to 80 Americans whom the State Department has designated as “wrongfully detained” by foreign governments (or by non-state actors, in some cases)—from Russia to Iran to Saudi Arabia to Venezuela to China to Syria, much of which is controlled by the Islamic State. (The precise figure is classified.) Without this designation, a detainee’s case remains tucked away at Consular Services at the U.S. embassy. Once the detainee has been deemed “wrongfully detained,” the United States government commits itself, in principle, to doing whatever possible to bring that detainee home.
Even then, most Americans know almost nothing about their fellow Americans rotting away in underground cells, or being tortured or starved, or suffering from any number of ailments, often without medical care. There’s Brittney Griner, but there’s also Paul Whelan, a former Marine also being held in Russia; Austin Tice, a journalist and former Marine who disappeared more than a decade ago in Syria; and the Citgo 6 oil executives who have been detained in Venezuela for nearly five years.
Clearly, the government has an interest in seeing them all released.
But when it comes to Brittney Griner, the question is: Is exchanging her for Viktor Bout too high a price? Will buying her freedom with that of an international arms trafficker inadvertently imperil the lives of Americans in dangerous places, or undermine American interests, or even possibly lead to a Bout-supplied terrorist attack in the United States?
According to attorneys who have handled cases of other Americans wrongfully detained by hostile governments, the answer to those questions is: Without a doubt. They’re backed up by Republicans on Capitol Hill who insist, on background, that the Biden Administration has embraced “a woke foreign policy,” fighting extra hard to ensure the release of Griner—a black, gay woman—at the expense of national security.
“Somebody within the administration thought it was good politics,” said one attorney representing wrongfully detained Americans. (He feared speaking openly, because, he said, it could endanger talks with State Department officials who might expedite his clients’ release.) “She’s black. She has a sexual orientation that’s different. Now let’s go out and virtue signal on this.”
Another attorney representing wrongfully detained Americans said that U.S. officials “know what someone is worth. I think what is really, really surprising to me is, if the news reports are accurate about Viktor Bout, I’d say offering him in trade—that would be totally shocking. I’ve been at this a long time. I cannot tell you the number of times the government has said flatly, ‘We will not consider trading people who have openly supported unlawful violence or contributed to it, it’s just a nonstarter.’” He added, “Viktor Bout is among the worst of the worst.”
Referring to Bout, Borshchevskaya told me: “His release may encourage the targeting of Americans overseas.”
Jason Poblete, an attorney in northern Virginia who has represented wrongfully detained Americans, said, “Telegraphing Bout makes about as much sense as a trap door on a canoe.”
When it comes to optics, it doesn’t help that the U.S. government has moved so fast. Or that Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan have spoken with Griner since her arrest—underscoring just how much they value her.
Jared Genser is an attorney at Perseus Strategies in Washington, D.C., and has handled several high-profile hostage cases. “Obviously, the speed at which her case was examined and the public attention it’s gotten and the attention of the president and vice president is indeed quite unusual and much faster than would happen in other cases,” he said.
Griner was arrested February 17. She had just flown from Phoenix to Moscow; she plays in the Russian Premier League during the WNBA off season. About ten weeks later, on May 3, the State Department announced it had determined that Griner had been wrongfully detained, and that the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs would be handling her case.
Attorneys representing other Americans behind bars in foreign countries said that State Department officials usually take several months or even years to determine whether someone has been wrongfully detained. During that time they first determine the facts of a case, whether a detainee has violated any laws, and the extent to which foreign relations may have colored the case.
“We have a hostage who was kidnapped off a runway in Dubai, drugged, and rendered to Kigali,” a source who works with American hostages and their families told me. “It took 617 days for him to be designated.”
Poblete, the attorney in northern Virginia, told me: “There are Americans and U.S. nationals—and I know of at least four—who have been waiting for years for some sort of action by the U.S.”
And then there’s the timing: Griner arrived in Russia exactly one week before it invaded Ukraine, severely damaging U.S.-Russia relations—which undoubtedly affected her case. In ordinary times, she would have been a bargaining chip who might have come up in periodic talks between representatives from both countries. Now, she was a pawn caught in one of the most destabilizing conflicts since the 1991 Soviet collapse.
A State Department spokesperson declined to discuss the details of the Griner case, saying: “We review the totality of the circumstances and assess the facts of the case against numerous criteria.”
Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, also declined to comment, as did Griner’s attorney in Moscow, Maria Blagovolina. (Colas published a Twitter thread with photos of Griner and #WeAreBG, repeatedly calling on the White House to “bring #BrittneyGriner home.”)
Genser, the Perseus Strategies attorney, was skeptical of the claim that “woke foreign policy” had anything to do with Griner’s case. “She’s a high-profile person in general, and any person who’s a celebrity who has a big platform is going to get a lot of attention,” he said. Several sources close to the Griner case compared it to that of rapper A$AP Rocky, who was arrested in 2019 in Stockholm and held for a month after assaulting a man—even though the Swedish legal system and the Russian “legal system” have little in common.
These sources also pointed out that the Russians are likely to throw former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan into the deal—meaning the Americans might get two for one. “I think Whelan makes it worth it,” a source said.
Griner was an almost irresistible target for the Russians: a 6’9” queer woman of color with dreadlocks, a Black Lives For Peace jacket, and the teensiest weensiest smidge of cannabis in a country that portrays itself as the last redoubt of white, Christian civilization.
She presented the Russians with two opportunities—at home and in the United States.
To a domestic audience, she was the emblem of all that was wrong with America. “For Russia, it’s a good example of their internal propaganda to show the decay of Western civilization,” said Serhiy Leshchenko, a social-media adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak. “On Russian Telegram, they always use this LGBT topic to show that the West is decayed. LGBT, legalization of drugs, and gender changes—these are the big issues they use.”
In America, it was a different story. She was not exactly part of a disinformation campaign. She did fly to Sheremetyevo Airport, outside Moscow, and she did admit that she broke the law—though she says bringing the contaminated vape cartridges was accidental. (This video, released by Russian customs officials, appears to show Griner being stopped at the airport while officials rifle through her suitcase.)
But the situation she found herself in had the makings of a brilliant psychological operation, or psy-op. Exploiting America’s sensitivities—racial and otherwise—is a well-documented Russian strategy. During the 2016 campaign, Russian trolls launched Blacktivist and other fake sites and avatars with an eye toward sowing racial tension and undermining the legitimacy of the presidential election.
Those trolls mostly work for the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Center, and they know that it is impossible for an American publication to post a story about Brittney Griner without mentioning her race, gender, and sexual orientation—generating yet another series of salvos in America’s spiraling and deeply divisive culture wars. They know that left-wingers will complain that the president isn’t doing enough to free Griner because she’s a black, gay woman and that right-wingers will complain that he’s doing too much. They know that if the Kremlin were to release Griner but not Whelan—who is white, male, and straight—that would stoke outrage. Or that if they released Whelan but not Griner, that would do the same.
“It’s a reflection of the fact that the Russians know how to—and Putin in particular knows how to push American buttons, and that’s what he’s doing here,” said Harvey Klehr, the well-known historian of the Cold War and the American left. “They’re playing the public opinion of the United States.”
Jonathan Frank, a public relations adviser whose recent clients include Trevor Reed, the U.S. Marine released from a Russian prison in April, texted me: “This discussion is a cheap waste of time that principally benefits the Russian propagandists who are working 24/7 to inject us vs them dynamics into our discourse.”
The Russians are already winning on that front. All they had to do was arrest Brittney Griner. America took care of the rest. America, in its addled, hyper-politicized state, could be counted on to seize on Griner’s arrest and mold it into an ideological cudgel: The Nation declared that the GOP wanted “to erase” her. The American Conservative argued that the Biden Administration had succumbed to identity politics. The Atlantic, anticipating a point made by Griner’s wife on ESPN, insisted that if only women’s basketball paid its players better, they wouldn’t have to play in awful places like Ekaterinburg, Russia.
Like so many stories coursing through the American media-social-media complex, Griner has been transformed from a human being into a meme. That meme is resonating across our feeds, deepening the fissures we seem incapable of escaping. It is fighting the Russians’ battle for them, and they know it, and we don’t. We can’t see what should be readily apparent, so consumed are we by our seemingly unslakable desire to destroy each other.