OPINION: This article may contain commentary which reflects the author's opinion.
A Russian court found WNBA player Brittney Griner guilty on Thursday on drug smuggling and possession charges.
She was sentenced to 9 years in a Russian prison after a month-long trial and nearly six months after the basketball player was arrested at a Russian airport with cannabis in her luggage.
On Friday, one day after she was sentenced, Russia confirmed that it is in talks to swap Griner for Viktor Bout, the notorious “Merchant of Death” arms dealer who has been imprisoned in the United States since 2010.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: “We are ready to discuss this topic but within the framework of the channel that was agreed upon by presidents Putin and Biden. If the Americans decide to once again resort to public diplomacy, that is their business and I would even say that it is their problem.”
The Daily Mail reported that the deal to swap her for Bout was on the table, and could be completed within a “matter of weeks.”
“The US position has weakened now. They showed their hand and now their bargaining position has weakened,” a source allegedly told the Daily Mail.
“It is now uncertain that the deal would include Paul Whelan, an American who has been locked up on espionage charges since 2018. The US had been pushing for a deal that would include both Griner and Whelan. Now that she has been sentenced in the Russian court of law, their leverage is weaker. Bout was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012. He had already served four years and has since completed another ten,” the Daily Mail reported.
“While he technically has 11 years left on his sentence, he must serve only 85 percent of the total term under federal prison guidelines which makes him eligible for release in around five or six. John Kirby, the US National Security Council Director for Strategic Communications, would only confirm that the US wants to strike a deal,” the report added.
Bout, who some have characterized as one of the biggest arms dealers in the world, was arrested in Thailand at the request of U.S. officials in 2008.
Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who served in the Obama administration, once called Bout “one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers” in history.
— New York Post (@nypost) July 31, 2022
Who is Viktor Bout, Russia's 'Merchant of Death' who could be freed in prisoner swap for Brittney Griner? https://t.co/VUlM2VWouf
— Fox News (@FoxNews) July 28, 2022
He’s armed both the Taliban and Hezbollah https://t.co/486IkUMERB
— Alex Plitsas 🇺🇸 (@alexplitsas) August 5, 2022
Here’s more info on Bout from the New York Post:
When the Soviet Union broke up, military equipment belonging to the superpower ended up scattered across the 15 new nations created by the dissolution. These countries had neither the money with which to keep an army paid, nor the infrastructure to keep inventory on the weapons they’d just inherited.
Bout assembled a fleet of ex-Soviet cargo planes — massive Antonov and Ilyushin craft — and began making shipments of arms and other goods all over the world. Bout came to American attention in the late ’90s, as he supplied weapons to the war zones of Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the New York Times reported.
In the decades that followed, his client list grew prolifically. Bout’s reported to have supplied weapons to Hezbollah, according to The Guardian. He reportedly flew weapons to both the Taliban and their foes, the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Through a front company, he allegedly even won a contract to deliver FedEx packages to Baghdad.
Trading Bout for Griner has been seen by many as too steep a price.
The former DEA agent who helped to capture Bout, Rob “Zach” Zachariasiewicz, penned an op-ed for USA Today in which he warned against making the trade.
“Bout, who is known as the “Merchant of Death,” provided the fuel for conflicts across the globe. He was a critical player in the global illicit arms trade not because he could obtain weapons but because he could deliver his destructive cargo anywhere in the world through his control of a private fleet of military aircraft. And he did just that,” the former DEA agent said.