The United States has successfully secured the release of basketball player Brittney Griner, who has been in a Russian prison since February 2022. After months of negotiations between the two sides, the Biden-led government agreed to release Viktor Bout, a renowned arms dealer imprisoned in the US in a prisoner swap.
Russian State media confirmed the arrival of Victor Bout on Thursday night, while the United States said Griner would arrive soon, but her family has asked for her privacy to be respected.
In a world where Russia and the United States have grown to be archenemies, prisoners held by both sides have become one of the few connections between them. The talks on Griner’s release began sometime in July, with the United States demanding the release of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner in exchange for Viktor Bout. But in the end, the score was 1-1.
Two criminals of no match
Viktor Bout and Brittney Grinner might be two criminals in the two countries. However, their crimes are nowhere near each other. The Russian, a former Soviet military officer, was arrested for conspiring to kill Americans. He is believed to be one of the most cautious arms dealers in the world. He was even nicknamed the “Merchant of Death.”
According to Preet Bharara, the US attorney in Manhattan when Bout was sentenced in 2012, “Viktor Bout has been international arms trafficking enemy number one for many years, arming some of the most violent conflicts around the globe.”
“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,” Preet added.
He was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012 despite denying all allegations against him. The Kremlin also described his imprisonment as “baseless and biased.”
While Viktor was a fearful arms dealer, Griner was arrested in Russia after a cartridge containing hashish oil was found in her bag. Griner said she never knew about the Russian law prohibiting owning the substance for personal use. She was imprisoned for nine years on the ground that she attempted to smuggle narcotics into Russia.
Many have argued that swapping an arms dealer for a Griner was a wrong decision by the Biden government but the government had insisted that Bout was no longer a security threat of any kind before his release.
Thank you, Biden
A relative of an abducted person does not mind what happens. What is important is that the abducted person is released even if a law is broken to get that happen. That was the case for Griner’s family. While some Americans were worried about the prisoners’ swap, the family of the 32-year-old was willing to support any decision to get him back home.
Following her release on Thursday, Griner’s family released a statement thanking President Biden and his administration “for the tireless work they did to bring Brittney home.”
“We would like to extend our sincere gratitude to President Biden and his administration… for remaining in constant communication with us,” the family said in the statement.
“We pray for Paul and for all wrongfully detained Americans’ swift and safe return,” the statement added. They, however, urged the media and others to respect the family’s privacy as Griner begins the process of healing.
The next American on the list
On July 30, Antigua News reported that the United States was demanding the release of two Americans before it could release Viktor Bout. The other American was Paul Whelan, who had been in a Russian prison for almost four years. Following Thursday’s release of Brittney Griner, the White House has made it clear that the Russians refused the deal and insisted on a one-to-one swap.
“Viktor Bout was never a bargaining chip for Mr Whelan, and the Russians consistently made that clear. So I think we need to make that well-known,” John Kirby, the US Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, said on Thursday.
“We will work as hard today and tomorrow and the next day to get Mr Whelan home as we have been working since he’s been in Russia wrongfully detained,” Kirby added.
Kirby said the United States did its best to bring both prisoners home but what it had was the best deal that could be reached by both sides.
“We just couldn’t make it work,” he said while expressing gratitude for the safe return of the basketball player.
I am disappointed – Whelan cries out
Paul Whelan, who had been in a Russian prison for almost three years before Brittney’s arrest, says he is disappointed that Biden’s administration failed to secure his release. In an exclusive interview with CNN, Whelan said: “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.”
He, however, said the Russian government was making demands that would be difficult on the United States after he was arrested and imprisoned for a crime that never existed.
“They’re trying to get out of United States, what the United States may not be able to provide, but this is basically political extortion,” he said. “They’ve always considered me to be at a higher level than other criminals of my sort. And for whatever reason, I’m treated differently than another individual here from a Western country that’s also on a charge of espionage.
Mr Whelan, a Canadian American, was arrested on December 2018 after he was accused of spying on the country. He got a 16 years sentence in 2020, and since then, his family has been calling on the US government to do more to secure his release.
A bad deal with a good result
Despite the sigh of relief that Brittney had safely returned to her family, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio had criticised the deal that brought her home. He argued that the deal would encourage the arrest of Americans around the world.
“That’s why you trade a professional basketball player with (cannabis) oil for the Merchant of Death. These are bad trades,” Rubio said. “We have to recognize, even as we’re happy in Americans coming home, it does incentivize the taking of more Americans around the world.”
Another Republican congressman, Mike Waltz, said he was happy for Griner and her family but insisted that “appeasing terrorists, appeasing dictatorships never works in the interests of the United States.
He argued that the deal would have included the release of Whelan, but that was not the case because he was not a celebrity. Waltz said: “The fact that we left a US Marine behind and made this choice, and I don’t buy … President Biden saying we didn’t have a choice.”
The deal is a sign of weakness and strength
While the United States has insisted that the deal was good, one would not deny the fact that it exposes weaknesses on the part of the United States and Russia. None of the two countries has the absolute power they portray themselves to have.
The United States’ failure to get the two prisoners out means they do not always have their way at all times, and sometimes they need to bend their principles before achieving their goals.
Both parties would now begin the process of reaching a new deal to secure the release of Paul Whelan. It reported that the Russian government requested the release of a former colonel from the country’s spy agency, Zelimkhan “Tornike” Khangoshvili, who is serving a life sentence in Germany for the murder of a former Chechen fighter.
As the United States begins negotiating the release of Paul Whelan, they can be sure that the Russian government will continue to list more stringent demands.