The end of Brittney Griner’s detainment in Russia arrived early Thursday morning, after the White House announced that she was on an airplane returning home safe and sound. The timing was a surprise to everyone outside of the Biden and Griner family’s inner circle. However, the two individuals involved were not. The exchange of convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout for Griner occurred on the soil of the United Arab Emirates months after UAE president Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyant and Vladimir Putin hashed out the details.
However, the secrecy that shrouded negotiations also created a vacuum for false narratives to fill into. The most prevalent noise to filter out centered on accusations that the Biden Administration left behind ex-Marine Paul Whelan. Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker Micah Parsons expressed those sentiments on Twitter in the hours after Griner’s release was announced before retracting his statement later on in the afternoon.
The 2-for-1 was a longshot, and by keeping Whelan, Russia also accomplished its goal of creating discord in the United States. Pass Rush Limbaugh may not live this one down for a while, but to Parsons’ credit, he changed his tune after being edified by individuals close to him for his uninformed takes. He won’t be the first or the last, either. Tackle Carlson’s misguided outrage was representative of the sentiments shared by cynics who consider Griner unworthy on their imaginary prisoner trade value chart. Instead of rejoicing over Griner being able to spend the holidays at home, we’ve got the Parsons of the world feeding into nonsense.
The Whelan family was made aware of Griner’s release before the general public was and issued a supportive, level-headed statement intended to preempt the bad takes from talking heads who couldn’t wait to denigrate the moment.
“There is no greater success than for a wrongful detainee to be freed & for them to go home. The Biden Admin made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, & to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to,” the Whelan family said in a statement acknowledging the reality of the situation.
Prisoner swaps are imperfect, but for the first time, we’ve had an ex-president who didn’t lift a finger to help Whelan, upset about the safe return of an American. Given how lowly a particular segment of the population feels about Black women, lesbians, and women’s sports, the visceral anger isn’t surprising.
Where was this energy following Trevor Reed’s release back in the spring? In exchange for Reed’s release, the Biden Administration surrendered Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot sentenced to 20 years in prison for conspiring to import $100 million of cocaine to the U.S.
Swapping Griner for an arms dealer who sold arms to the Taliban has been scrutinized 10 times more heavily than the previous administration’s release of 5000 actual Taliban in 2020.
In 2009, Sergent Bowe Bergdahl was captured by terrorists after deserting his post in Afghanistan. To recover Bergdahl, the U.S. released five high-ranking Taliban officials being held in Guantanamo Bay.
Given the choice of swapping Griner for Bout or nothing at all, the Biden Administration took the only deal available to them. Too many people in this county pretend that international prisoner swaps are as simplistic as bartering on Craigslist. Negotiations for Griner’s release were hampered by tense diplomatic relations caused by the war in Ukraine and growing economic sanctions imposed on Russia following their invasion of neighboring Ukraine.
These were complex negotiations taking place that spanned months and required coordination between multiple governments and most importantly, secrecy. Keeping Griner’s name in the Biden Administration’s ear helped, but it now appears the pressure was being applied behind the scenes. The negotiations for Griner’s release were reportedly hammered out in October and kept under wraps since then. On select occasions, the U.S. State Department went public with negotiations, it blew up in their faces. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s press conference announcing the approval of a deal for Whelan and Griner raised unreasonable expectations and put Russia in the adversarial position of playing hardball to make it seem like they weren’t rolling over for the U.S.
Many of the irrational fears about Bout’s release are unmoored from reality. He was an unscrupulous arms dealer in his heyday, but he’s not a supervillain. Bout isn’t about to relaunch a uniquely dangerous terror organization or unleash some advanced weaponry that will win the invasion of Ukraine for Russia.
The way Bout is depicted, you’d think he was some Russian Tony Stark who’ll solve the nation’s military infrastructure issues. He’s really 2014 K.G. and Paul Pierce. The Griner swap was the diplomatic edition of Billy King’s infamous Nets-Celtics trade. Bout was essentially retired when he was suckered into a sting operation and at 55, he’s been out of the arms dealing industrial complex for over a decade. Serving in Africa, he developed close ties to members of the Russian elite who are now part of Putin’s inner circle.
The “Merchant of Death” is a nickname, it’s not a descriptor of a superpower. He’s not a religious leader or political war hero. In Griner, the U.S. received a young great, still in her prime, with a larger platform and a new lease on life. The eight-time MVP, two-time scoring champ, two-time Olympian and two-time Defensive Player of the Year award has been one of the WNBA’s most visible stars since being drafted first overall by the Mercury in 2013 and will have a larger megaphone than Bout will in Russia.