Opinion: The Brittney Griner trade is better than expected

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Brittney Briner / GettyImages / CC BY-SA

U.S. WNBA basketball superstar Brittney Griner arrives to a hearing at the Khimki Court outside Moscow on June 27, 2022.

Women’s basketball star Brittney Griner’s release from Russia in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout is a much better trade than most people may realize.

At first glance, the trade seems completely unfair for the American side. 

Trust me, when news of the trade initially reached the public, I was shocked. When I compared the records of both, I couldn’t believe this trade was even considered. Bout, whose nickname is the “Merchant of Death,” is arguably the most notorious international arms trafficker in the world. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison after conspiring to sell arms to Columbian guerrilla groups that America considered terrorist organizations. Griner, on the other hand, was arrested in March for carrying vape cartridges and minimal amounts of hashish oil in her luggage while visiting Russia during her off-season. 

This presents the question. Did Biden just free a dangerous international criminal for a controversial celebrity athlete? 

Well, not exactly. Although it might seem much safer to keep such a dangerous person behind bars, it’s not that simple. It’s important to note that Bout has already served a substantial amount of his original sentence (11 of 25 years). Shira Scheindlin, the judge who presided over his trial, has even spoken out that his sentence was “too high.” At the time, she had considered Bout to be a “businessman,” not a terrorist. However, because of his involvement with terrorist groups, U.S. law required that he serve a minimum of 25 years. Additionally, it is widely believed that the United States’ desire to punish him has already been satisfied and that he was simply being held as trade capital. “The United States’ interest in punishing him has been satisfied, and it would not be a bad equation to send him back if we get back these people who are important to us,” Scheindlin said, during an interview with New York Times.

The people Scheindlin was referring to were Griner, as well as Paul Whelan and Marc Fogel. Whelan is a former U.S. Marine who was arrested in 2018 in Russia under espionage charges. Fogel, who used to be a teacher, was arrested last year under similar charges and is serving 14 years of hard labor in a Russian prison. 

The reason why I’m even discussing these people is that their sentences mired the state of present-day neo-politics. Had Russia and the U.S. not had such hostile relations, Griner probably would’ve never been arrested for such minor offenses and definitely not been sentenced to nine years. The same goes for Whelan and Fogel, whose 10-plus-year sentences are not necessarily fair. 

In light of the growing tensions from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and infringement on western principles, it’s important to appreciate that such a trade was finalized. Although I don’t believe this trade will lead to any diplomatic breakthroughs regarding the war, I believe it signifies tensions decreasing between Russia and U.S. More importantly, this trade is a perfect representation of the U.S.’s efforts to bring its own back home.