Moscow has taken Brittney Griner hostage. It would be a mistake to take the Women’s National Basketball Association player and Olympian’s arrest and conviction on charges related to cannabis possession at face value, just as it would be an error to believe that her sentence of nine years in a penal colony is just. There is no rule of law in Russia. There is only power. And Griner is only the most recent American citizen to be used by Russia as a chip in its high-stakes showdown with the West.
Griner was arrested in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on February 17—less than a week before Russian forces poured over the Ukrainian border and at a time of heightened geopolitical tensions between Russia and NATO. She was found in possession of cartridges containing hashish oil used in personal vaporizers, and marijuana is illegal in Russia for both recreational and medicinal purposes. Griner’s trial—which her attorneys allege was tainted by the introduction of illegal case files—and the near-maximum sentence she received for her offense gives Russia’s game away.
Griner’s ordeal is similar to the one endured by U.S. security contractor Paul Whelan, who was arrested in Moscow in 2018 and sentenced to 16 years after being convicted of having classified information in a thumb drive in his personal effects. Whelan, who had traveled openly to and from Russia for years, claims that he was set up, and the U.S. government appears to agree. Washington maintains that Whelan was “wrongfully detained.” As for Griner, “She should have never been on trial to begin with,” Pentagon Spokesman John Kirby maintained. “So, there should be no sentence.”
We know what Moscow wants, and the United States appears prepared to supply it.
Viktor Bout is known as “the merchant of death” for a reason. The inspiration for the 2005 Nicholas Cage film “Lord of War,” Bout made his name selling Soviet-era weapons to rebel groups all over the planet. He fueled conflicts in Afghanistan, Angola, Lebanon, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere. Bout didn’t care who bought his weapons as long as they paid up. At times, he funneled arms and munitions to both sides of the same conflict. The notorious arms dealer was arrested in Thailand in 2008 based on a complaint filed in Manhattan federal court. In 2011, he was convicted of conspiring to kill American nationals, government officials and employees; conspiring to sell anti-aircraft missiles; and providing support to State Department-designated terrorist organizations. He’s been in U.S. custody ever since.
Russia wants Bout back, and the U.S. seems to be working on it. According to Bout’s attorney, negotiations between Moscow and Washington for a prisoner swap that would trade Griner and Whelan for Bout has been going on for weeks. Former CIA officer Dan Hoffman told National Public Radio that the swap is a “real good public relations move” for Putin, allowing him “to show that he’s taking care of his own.” Putin is not just taking ownership of a Russian citizen but also a blood-soaked arms dealer.
Bout, however, may not be enough. Russian officials have also reportedly sought the release of Vadim Krasikov, a one-time FSB agent who was convicted of assassinating a former Chechen fighter in Berlin in 2019 and is currently serving a life sentence in a German prison. Krasikov’s release is also on the table. According to CNN, “U.S. officials did make quiet inquiries to the Germans about whether they might be willing to include Krasikov in the trade.”
Russia wants a notorious arms dealer and a hitman. We want a basketball player and a corporate consultant. There may be a deal here, but its terms will not be equivalent. There is no equivalency between the kind of statecraft Moscow pursues and that of the United States. Today, it’s fashionable in certain ideological quarters to argue that there is no distinction—tactically or morally—between these two powers. They can make that case to Griner if and when we manage to bring her home, the terribly unjust price that must be paid for her freedom notwithstanding.