Pressure on Biden to free WNBA star triggers talk of prisoner swap for Russian arms dealer

Pressure on Biden to free WNBA star triggers talk of prisoner swap for Russian arms dealer

As pressure mounts on President Biden to take more aggressive action to get Moscow to release jailed WNBA star Brittney Griner, the international chatter increasing points to a prisoner swap for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Russian media and Bout’s lawyer, Steve Zissou, say Russian officials want to secure Bout’s release and that Griner, who has been locked up in Russia since February, could be part of a deal. 

“I would be surprised if any American was repatriated without Viktor Bout also being sent home to his family,” Zissou told The Washington Times.

Bout is serving a 25-year sentence in federal prison. He was convicted of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens, delivering anti-aircraft missiles, and providing aid to a terrorist organization, charges his lawyer disputes.

Another detained American, former Marine Paul Whelan, who was arrested in Russia on espionage charges in 2018, could also be part of a prisoner swap for Bout.

Mr. Zissou said the deal would likely have to include Bout. The lawyer met last month with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, who said that freeing Bout “was Russia’s number one priority,” according to Mr. Zissou.

Griner, meanwhile, made her first appearance in court on Friday and was accused of possessing “a significant amount of cannabis oil,” which is a banned substance in Russia. She faces likely conviction and a decade in prison when her trial resumes on July 7.

Griner, 31, was arrested at the airport in Moscow on Feb. 17 for allegedly carrying vape cartridges with hashish oil. She was visiting the country to play for a Russian basketball team after the conclusion of the WNBA season.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied Griner is being held as a political pawn, The Associated Press reported.

“The facts are that the famous athlete was detained in possession of prohibited medication containing narcotic substances,” Peskov told reporters on Friday. “In view of what I’ve said, it can’t be politically motivated.”

Still, Russia’s desire to free Bout complicates matters for Mr. Biden, who is weathering intense criticism for failing to secure the release of Griner, a center for the Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist.

Dozens of organizations, including women’s and LGBTQ groups, have pressed Mr. Biden to step up efforts to secure Griner’s release. They called on the president “to make a deal to get Brittney back home to America immediately and safely.”

While Bout’s lawyer disputes the charges against him, Bout was convicted of far more serious crimes than Griner’s drug charge, which could make it difficult for the Biden administration to agree to a swap.

Griner’s high-profile detainment comes at a historically difficult point in the diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and Russia. Griner was arrested just days before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops to invade Ukraine on February 24. 

The U.S. has condemned the invasion and responded by providing Ukraine with weapons and other support to defend itself from Mr. Putin’s forces.

With Griner in detention, Russian officials are now intensifying efforts to secure the release of Bout, whose targeting and conviction by the United States has long been viewed as an attack on Russian sovereignty. 

Russian media is reporting that a swap for Bout is on the table.

“Currently, talks are underway on exchanging Bout for Griner,” Tass news reported, citing an unnamed Russian source.

Nicknamed the “Merchant of Death,” Bout was convicted in 2011 in a U.S. government sting operation of planning to smuggle arms to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The witnesses hired to portray FARC told Bout the arms would be used to target U.S. military serving in Colombia.

Bout, 55, is about five years from completing his sentence and is in failing health, his lawyer said.

Mr. Zissou said he is trying to elevate the circumstances surrounding his client’s case to improve his appeal as a candidate for a prisoner swap.  

The U.S. targeted Bout while he was living in Moscow and retired from running an air transport company that also smuggled arms from one country to another.  

The U.S. government paid more than $10 million to criminals as part of the operation to catch Bout.

“Entrapment is exactly what happened,” Mr. Zissou said.

Mr. Zissou said exchanging Griner for Bout is “a no brainer,” because his client will be freed in a few years regardless. 

Last week, Russian officials extended Griner’s pretrial detention by six months. With Russia’s acquittal rate in criminal cases at less than 1%, it’s unlikely she will be able to return to the U.S. without a prisoner exchange.

Pressure is also on Mr. Biden to also secure the release of Mr. Whelan, 52, who is serving a 16-year sentence in a Russian prison camp.

“It’s certainly conceivable that a swap for Whelan and Bout gets agreed to, and then at the end of Griner’s trial, if she’s convicted, she just gets pardoned and sent home,” Mr. Zissou said.

In a statement provided to The Times, the State Department declined to provide details about the talks to free Griner.

“We have no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas,” a State Department spokesman said. “The Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner. The U.S. government will continue to provide appropriate support to Griner and her family. We will continue to press for her release.”