Russia-U.S. prisoner exchange offers glimmer of hope for Brittney Griner

Governments swap incarcerated marine for drug smuggler after two years of jockeying

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Is there new hope for Brittney Griner?
Is there new hope for Brittney Griner?
Image: Getty Images

It appears Russia’s hardline obsession with punishing drug offenders has its limit after all. On Wednesday morning, Russia released a U.S. citizen and former marine, Trevor Reed, as part of prisoner exchange. In July 2020, Reed was sentenced to nearly nine years in prison following an altercation with Russian police officers.

While Brittney Griner’s omission from the news of a prisoner exchange may sound disappointing for supporters of hers, it’s not all bad. It provides a glimmer of hope. The federal government’s financial sanctions against Russia’s economy and American companies pulling out of the country previously suggested that diplomatic windows were slammed shut with Griner stuck on the other side. Reed’s release illustrates that Russia is still down for some quid pro quo action.


Russia didn’t give up Reed as an act of kindness. In exchange for Reed, the U.S. swapped out Russian citizen Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was convicted of smuggling large batches of cocaine in 2011 and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

These types of exchanges were routinely done during the Cold War, but for a trade to take place at a time when tensions between Russia and the western world are so high, it could signal to Griner’s family — and lawyers — to keep up the full-court press on the Biden administration to secure her return.


Like Griner, the high profile of Reed, a former Marine, effectively made him a political prisoner since his arrest in 2018. Griner’s identity in the public eye as a towering Black-American, lesbian professional athlete made her an easy target for Moscow. Two years ago, Vladimir Zherebenkov, the lawyer for 50-year-old marine Paul Whelan, identified at least two prisoners whom the Russian government would be interested in exchanging. One was Yaroshenko, who was traded for Reed, and another was Viktor Bout. Bout was the inspiration for Nicholas Cage’s gun-running character in Lord of War.

Ultimately, Russia extracted a prisoner of value out of the United States, but the cost of exchanging a few Russians convicted of non-violent crimes who have more value as assets in exchange for political prisoners is minimal. The Biden administration should be offering Bout and any other Russians they’re willing to release for Griner and Whelan. Our prisons are overflowing anyways.

Russia’s willingness to take a drug smuggler is a positive for Griner, who is currently facing drug-related charges. The crime she’s accused of — bringing a marijuana vape pen on her flight — is much less severe in comparison to the ones that resulted in the lengthy sentences for Whelan and Reed.

Griner is facing a May 18 court date and the U.S. State Department has advised the WNBA and Griner’s family to keep negotiations of a potential release hushed in hopes that the Kremlin doesn’t cool the process in a show of political grandstanding. When U.S. and Russian governments are willing to make a swap, they’ve shown the ability to expedite exchanges. It took two years to execute the Reed-Yaroshenko exchange, but Russia has been signaling its requests since the Trump administration. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. The path to securing Griner’s freedom won’t be simple, but an eagerness for a deal to be done offers a glimmer of hope.