Should We Be Trading Weapon Dealers For Basketball Players?

Is a former Olympic medal-winner and LGBTQ activist worth unleashing one of Russia’s most notorious weapons purchasers? And when American citizens choose to travel to dangerous parts of the world and get in trouble overseas, do they have a right to expect help from America? On the latest episode of the Drill Down podcast, Peter and Eric discuss the recent prisoner swap of basketball player Brittney Griner for a Russian arms dealer known as “The Merchant of Death.”

Griner was arrested at a Russian airport in February after authorities discovered “cannabis-derived oil cartridges” in her luggage. She was subsequently charged with drug smuggling, later convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison. The Biden administration was negotiating for her return and for the return of Paul Whelan, a former US Marine arrested nearly four years ago for allegedly spying in Russia. Why was Griner freed while Whelan continues to languish in a Russian jail?

There are complications, as you might expect.

Whelan was treated by the Russians as an American spy, which he still denies. His arrest and conviction were noted but did not become a big news story in the US. The Russians demanded the US offer to release a Russian spy held in the US. The US denied there are any in custody. Hence, negotiations for Whelan’s release stalled during the latter days of the Trump administration and into the new Biden administration.

Griner’s was a different story entirely. A former Olympic gold medalist and WNBA player, Griner had made headlines in Democratic circles for refusing to stand for the national anthem, and for being a black, gay woman. While she earned around $500,000 a year as a WNNBA player, she decided to leave the US to play in Russia for more money. She was arrested at the airport for smuggling cannabis oil (marijuana use of any kind is prohibited in Russia), which she claimed not to know about. During her trial, she did not intend to bring cannabis oil found in her luggage in February into Russia at all.” However, she pleaded guilty to the charges in July in an attempt to mitigate her sentence, which could be up to 10 years in prison.”

It appears that Griner’s importance to the Democratic Party’s intersectional politics may have played a role. As PBS described it, “Griner’s arrest in February made her the most high-profile American jailed abroad. Her status as an openly gay Black woman, locked up in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LBGTQ community, infused racial, gender and social dynamics into her legal saga and made each development a matter of international importance.”

Biden was being pressured politically by Griner’s wife, TV pundits like Al Sharpton, other pro athletes and celebrities on social media, and a host of Democratic Party – aligned pressure groups. No such public pressure existed for Whelan. An NBC report on the negotiations, later stealth-edited, first said “A senior U.S. official told NBC News that the U.S. government had sought to have both Griner and Whelan released as part of a swap with the Kremlin, which wanted the return of Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who has served 11 years of a 25-year sentence in the U.S. But the official said Russia has treated Whelan differently because he is an accused spy, and that the Kremlin gave the White House the choice of either Griner or Whelan — or none.” According to investigative reporter Jordan Shachtel, that was later changed by NBC to read, ““… the Kremlin ultimately gave the White House the choice of Griner or no one after different options were proposed.”

And what of Viktor Bout, the Russian arms trader? He was arrested in 2008 and was known to have sold arms to, among others, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, the Colombian communist rebel group known as FARC, and more. He has thus been responsible for providing weapons that have killed American service members.

Interviewed on Megyn Kelly’s show recently, former ambassador and former acting director of the Directorate of National Intelligence Ric Grenell, put the trade into international perspective when he said this prisoner trade “signals troubled waters for Americans overseas.”

“Joe Biden keeps getting out-maneuvered,” Grenell told Kelly. Senate Democrats and Joe Biden dropped the sanctions that we [the Trump administration] had in place on the NordStream 2 pipeline… that was a strategic blunder. It showed Putin we were weak. It gave him a green light. And within months we had the war in Ukraine. . . And now Putin’s got his best arms dealer back at work right now.”

Peter agrees. “I think the average American would be horrified at the notion that you’re releasing prisoners based on who they are or what their sexual preference is… Biden has a history of ‘feeding the coalition.’”

Eric quotes from Biden’s press secretary who announced the deal for Griner: “On a personal note, Brittney is an important role model, an inspiration to millions of Americans particularly the LGBTI+ Americans and women of color.”

Peter brings the conversation back to this question: What is America’s obligation to Americans who willingly choose to go to hostile countries? Do we have the obligation to trade other countries’ bad actors for Americans who knowingly went to these hostile countries knowing the risks?

“I think, only in very limited circumstances. If you look at Russia, China, or Afghanistan, these are countries who arrest people all the time. I have a little bit more sympathy for a relief worker, but the celebrity who goes to Russia just to make more money? I don’t have any sympathy for that.”