Inside the Griner Prisoner Swap

Brittney Griner
WNBA star Brittney Griner returned to the U.S. on Thursday as part of a prisoner swap after 294 days in Russian detention. Photo: Oliver Contreras/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
December 8, 2022

Early on a bright Thursday morning, Brittney Griner stood at the penal colony gates, her bags packed, breathing fog in the winter frost of Mordovia, a Russian region east of Moscow where most of the local economy depends on the penal colonies that dominate the landscape. Griner stood waiting for a transfer, apparently not knowing where she was being taken, a common practice in Russia when moving prisoners around. The prison guards cheerfully saw her off. “Will you come back here? Yes?” they asked Griner, as if talking to a small child. “Good job! Come back!” Then Griner got into a van, which took her to a plane. And if video of the event released by the F.S.B. is to be believed, it was only when the plane was in the air that Griner was told where she was being taken: home. 

Long before Griner was swapped for arms dealer Viktor Bout on an Abu Dhabi tarmac, this was the trade that had been anticipated in Washington. Still, for months, my sources in the White House and State Department remained deeply pessimistic about any deal going through. With the war in Ukraine and the Russian army suffering defeat after defeat at the hands of a Western-armed Ukraine, Moscow seemed in no mood to negotiate. Russians would leak stuff to the press about various configurations of a prisoner swap before talking to Washington, which absolutely infuriated the Biden administration. 

Why Bout? The Russian government has been trying to free Viktor Bout ever since he was arrested in Thailand in 2008, in part because he was a former Soviet intelligence officer—and Putin is forever loyal to them if they keep their mouths shut and don’t betray the Motherland. In part, it is because of the way he was arrested. According to one former senior White House official, the Russian government was enraged that the Drug Enforcement Agency, an American domestic agency, arrested a Russian citizen on Thai soil. It was the principle of the matter. It was also yet another galling example of American hegemony and dominance in a world where Russia had lost much of its sway.

At one point, when the White House insisted that former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan should be included in the swap—it would be a terrible look to bring home Griner, who was arrested at the beginning of the year, before Whelan, who was arrested in 2018—the Russians floated the idea of releasing F.S.B. agent Vadim Krasikov. The problem was that Krasikov, who was sentenced to life in prison a year ago for killing a Chechen fighter in a Berlin park in broad daylight, was not being held by the United States, but by Germany. White House officials were livid at the suggestion, telling me that this was a non-starter: there was no way that they would ever ask Germany to do this, just as they would find it unacceptable if an ally, even a close one, asked something like this of them. Moreover, trading two people the U.S. government had designated as wrongfully detained for a literal murderer was a bridge too far.

But that’s how the Kremlin prefers its prisoner swaps: lopsided. Vladimir Putin, who was unctuously credited by his minions with the success of the negotiations, plays a zero-sum game, or as close to one as he can get. There are no win-wins in his world. Any win for the other side is automatically a loss for him, and so the more he can get the Americans to “bend over” in the Russian parlance, the better. This is why he refused to swap Bout for two Americans convicted in Russia on non-violent and obviously false charges: the trade would not be uneven enough. Instead, they left Biden—as a senior administration official acknowledged in a background call with reporters this morning—with an agonizing choice: Griner for Bout, or no swap at all. 

In the end, Biden had to take what he could get, a political victory—right before Christmas, and one that is especially important to Black Democrats—but an incomplete one. Republicans and Donald Trump slammed him for trading someone who did drugs and hated America—code for Black athletes who don’t stand during the national anthem but don’t openly advocate suspending the Constitution—rather than for a white, male Marine. (Though Trump, who had two years to do so, did nothing to use his friendship with Putin to bring back Whelan.) But even the Whelan family, which was given the heads-up that things hadn’t worked out for their loved one yet again (he was left behind in April when Trevor Reed was freed), seemed to understand. While acknowledging that the trade was a “catastrophe” for Whelan, his brother said, “The Biden administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.”

The Russian Character

Fighting this hard for Bout, a man who had supplied the conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia, and Afghanistan, a man who had earned the nickname of the “Merchant of Death,” wasn’t a great look for Moscow. It was, however, a very clear demonstration of the Kremlin’s priorities for all the world to see: Russia cares most ardently about its black-market arms dealers. 

And so, all day Thursday, Kremlin state TV worked hard to humanize Bout. At one point, showing the F.S.B. footage of Bout boarding the private jet in Abu Dhabi, one anchor commented with great emotion how skinny Bout looked now, “and, well, let’s face it, pretty aged.” When Bout landed in Moscow, the cameras were ready for him there, too, ready to capture the scenes of his howling 83-year-old mother and his crying wife, which the wildly objective Rossiya 24 correspondent called “an extremely touching scene.” And yet, it somehow wasn’t. Bout was stone-faced and calm to the point of appearing sinister, offering phlegmatic, surly commentary as his wife gently stroked his face. (“There it is, the unbreakable Russian character!” the correspondent exclaimed.)

All the while, American politics were never far from the surface. Republicans spent the day yelling that Joe Biden had traded a basketball player who had been caught with drugs for a weapons dealer, and Russian propagandists were ready to fan the flames of their outrage. Vladimir Solovyov, one of Moscow’s favorite propagandists, was quite blunt in explaining Moscow’s logic—and in mocking the Americans. “Paul Whelan must not have read ‘Animal Farm’ and must not know that among equal animals there are those who are more equal,” Solovyov wrote in his Telegram channel. “And a famous woman basketball player with a non-standard sexual orientation is far more valuable for the U.S.A. than some former Marine.” 

And guess who was waiting out on the snowy tarmac for Bout? Maria Butina, who did prison time in the U.S. for being a foreign agent and infiltrating the N.R.A., before she too was freed in a prisoner swap. In the years since, she has become an advocate for prisoners—not prisoners in Russian jails, but in American ones, where, she implausibly claims, conditions are far worse. She has also been put in the Russian parliament after failing to win a seat in a Kremlin-engineered election. Wearing a long black coat, her trademark red hair falling over her shoulder to her waist, Butina hung back and silently observed the “extremely touching scene”—until the Rossiya 24 correspondent stuck a microphone in her face.

Trump’s former national security advisor John Bolton had called today’s prisoner swap “a surrender,” the correspondent said. What did Butina think of that? She burst into a smile. “We support the statement of Mr. Bolton!” she beamed, nodding vigorously and jabbing her finger in the air. “It is the capitulation of America! We pushed hard and got what we wanted and negotiated from a position of strength. And that’s magnificent!”

It’s hard to call Russia’s position these days a position of strength. They are losing a war to a country they consider imaginary, their economy is hobbled, and their biggest allies in the world today are Iran and North Korea. But if bringing home a weapons smuggler allows Russia to feel good about itself as a global power for a day, why not? Especially if it also frees a woman from a cruel penal system where she didn’t speak the language and gives Biden a major political victory at home. One might even call it a win-win. Just don’t tell Putin.