A proposal by the Biden Administration to trade notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for WNBA star Brittney Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan, two high-profile Americans currently being held in Russia, has sparked praise, confusion and fury .
While some praised the Biden administration and the State Department for doing whatever it took to bring Griner and Whelan back, others expressed skepticism of the deal, especially when it is a question of freeing Bout, who has a notorious international reputation.
Many have wondered: is it worth exchanging two wrongfully detained Americans for an arms dealer nicknamed the “Merchant of Death”? Others ask if the deal should include Marc Fogel, the “other american“currently imprisoned in Russia after trying to enter the country last year with half an ounce of medical marijuana? Even more to wonder if an exchange could encourage new hostage-takings? What about the hundreds of thousands of Americans who continue to be arrested nationwide on marijuana-related charges?
In February, Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport after authorities found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil — for which she had a medical recommendation — in her bags. The arrest of the Phoenix Mercury star quickly grabbed headlines as it came amid heightened US-Russian tensions before Moscow sent forces to Ukraine a week later.
Griner has since been detained in Russia and faces a maximum of 10 years in prison if convicted of transporting drugs.
In December 2018, former U.S. Navy and corporate security chief Paul Whelan was arrested in Russia for espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison. According to Russian officials, he was surprised with a USB key containing classified information. Whelan, who also holds passports from Canada, the UK and Ireland, has repeatedly denied the charges and claimed he was set up.
The U.S. government denounced Whelan’s accusations as false and declared Whelan and Griner “wrongfully detained.”
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the United States had made a “substantial offer” to Russia to free Whelan and Griner. Although Blinken declined to say what the United States was offering in return, a source familiar with the matter confirmed a CNN report that Washington was willing to trade Bout, who is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States, as part of the swap.
Prisoner swaps have long been a part of history between the two former Cold War adversaries. The first major exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union took place in February 1962 when the Americans gave up Rudolf Abel, a convicted KGB spy, in exchange for American pilot Gary Powers, whose U2 spy plane had been shot down over the Soviet Union two years earlier. The exchange, which took place on the fog-covered Glienicke Bridge on a cold, cloudy Berlin morning, was adapted in a Steven Spielberg thriller more than 50 years later.
The Powers-Abel exchange paved the way for other prisoner exchanges. Just over 20 years later, the United States conducted what one American official called the “biggest spy swap” in history. The United States released four Eastern European spies in exchange for 25 people detained in East Germany and Poland. In more recent memory, 10 Russian agents detained by the United States Unis were exchanged in 2010 for four Russian officials whom the Kremlin had imprisoned for their illegal contacts with the West.
In April, former US Marine Trevor Reed was released to the United States after being detained in Russia since 2019. Russian authorities had accused Reed of attacking a Moscow policeman and sentenced him to nine years in prison . In exchange for Reed, the United States released imprisoned pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was sentenced in 2011 to 20 years in prison for conspiring to import more than $100 million worth of cocaine into the United States.
Despite these exchanges, none have completely questioned the notoriety of a figure like Bout. Born in 1967 in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, to an accountant and auto mechanic, Bout went on to form as an interpreter at the Soviet Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow.
Renowned for speaking six languages, Bout developed a decades-long career acquiring Soviet military transport planes and filling them with various weapons that were left behind after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since then, Bout has provided weapons to conflicts around the world, including Afghanistan, Angola, Congo, Lebanon, Somalia and Yemen.
For decades, governments and rebels fought each other with weapons that Bout sold to both sides.
In 2008, Bout was arrested in Bangkok after being caught on camera selling weapons for use against Americans by undercover United States Drug Enforcement and Administration agents. He was convicted in a New York court in 2011 and sentenced to 25 years in federal prison in Marion, Illinois.
Reports of Bout’s potential release have since been met with a host of emotions.
Kathi Austin, founder of the Conflict Awareness Project, a nonprofit that investigates major arms traffickers, expressed concern about the possibility of Bout’s release.
“I spent nearly 15 years hunting Bout around the world to end his death trade…My life and the lives of other UN colleagues and peacekeepers were put on the line to bring him to justice,” she told the Guardian.
“You can’t imagine how emotionally I struggled with the idea of Bout’s release… Putin knew very well what he was doing by doing Britney Griner a bargaining chip… In a post-liberation situation… Putin is certain to arm Bout in parts of the world where the merchant of death has a proven track record,” she said.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the nonpartisan organization Arms Control Association, echoed Austin’s concerns.
In a statement to The Guardian, Kimball said: “Freeing Victor Bout …could certainly lead to adverse consequences…If it is part of a prisoner exchange with Russia, it could harm future efforts to hold accountable those who illegally facilitate transfers of dangerous weapons to warlords, conflict zones and undemocratic regimes.
Jodi Vittori, a former Air Force lieutenant colonel and current professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, said: “Given that Mr. Bout has been incarcerated since then, there is little likely that its arms trading networks will remain substantially intact.”
Nonetheless, Vittori expressed concern about the irony of such a proposal, saying, “Exchanging American hostages for a notorious Russian arms dealer with the sinister moniker of Merchant of Death sends the world mixed messages to a when the United States is trying to arm itself. Ukraine as it fights for its life and democracy against Russia.
Jordan Cohen, a defense policy and arms sales analyst at the Cato Institute, questioned Bout’s ability to cause short-term damage if released. “American and Western intelligence services will likely follow him and his network to ensure that no sudden arms trafficking occurs. Beyond that, his years in prison and solitary confinement have also probably diminished his ability to mobilize his network quickly,” Cohen told the Guardian.
Others praised the Biden administration for its proposal. Michael McFaul, former US Ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration, tweeted: “I applaud the efforts of @SecBlinken & @StateDept to bring Britney Griner & Paul Whelan home, even if it means putting Viktor Bout back.”
However, he urged the State Department to also include Marc Fogel in the deal. Fogel, a former history teacher at the Anglo-American School in Moscow, was arrested last August after he attempted to enter Russia with medical marijuana that his doctor had prescribed for him to treat “severe spinal pain”. Russian authorities sentenced him to 14 years of hard labor, accusing him of committing “large-scale drug trafficking”.
“The tragic situations of Brittney Griner and Marc Fogel seem very similar. So hopefully Fogel can be included in a package. Getting three innocent Americans back, not just two, for one real criminal seems like a good trade to me,” McFaul, whose Fogel sons taught at the Anglo-American School, told the Guardian.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Jane Fogel said her hopes of securing her husband’s release had faded, saying: “I have a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that Marc will be left behind. “
While Griner’s wife got a call from Joe Biden, Fogel’s family was stuck at the State Department”intermediate level”. In a letter Marc Fogel recently spoke to his family regarding the prisoner swap reports the Washington Post reviewed, he wrote, “It hurts…Teachers are at least as important as bbballers.”
Meanwhile, others have criticized the irony of the State Department’s proposal as hundreds of thousands of Americans remain incarcerated on marijuana charges.
The New Hampshire Libertarian Party responded to news of the prisoner exchange by writing on action against drug crimes in the United States, saying, “America is angry with Russia for doing to Brittney Griner what it does to 374,000 people a year.”
another user tweeted“I often wonder how Americans who have family members still in American prisons because of weed feel watching this whole #BrittneyGriner thing unfold?”