Brittney Griner, the WNBA star sentenced for illegal possession of cannabis oil in Russia was just released in a prisoner swap with the “Merchant of Death”, Viktor Bout. The prisoner exchange and circumstances that surround it has so many layers to it that it’s a wonder people are naturally retreating to their respective political and cultural camps without spending too much time appreciating the full panoply of details that makes this single issue so meaningful, and equally confusing.
For starters let’s back up a bit and first look at why Brittney was in Russia in the first place. This might surprise you, but WNBA players make significantly less money than NBA players. From an April 2022 NPR article “The average NBA base salary this season is about $5.4 million, compared with about $120,600 for the WNBA. The WNBA season is shorter — 36 games versus 82 in the NBA. But the average annual base salaries mean an NBA player makes 44 times what the average WNBA player makes.” It’s this pay disparity that caused Brittney to travel to another country in the offseason to play for the European powerhouse club UMMC Ekaterinburg; she’s been doing this since 2014. Brittney is not alone in this, as a matter of fact roughly half of all WNBA players take their talents overseas during the off-season to supplement their income.
As far as Americans detained in Russia, Brittney was not alone, Paul Whelan was arrested under espionage charges since 2018 and is serving a 20 year sentence. Depending on where you get your news from you might be under the impression that the Biden Administration had to choose between Brittney and Paul, but that is objectively false. The United States weren’t in a good bargaining position to get both back. We were in a better negotiating posture to get Paul during the Trump administration but we’ll get to that later. For the Russians in order for Paul Whelan to return back to America they wanted a Russian Spy by the name of Vadim Krasikov who is currently serving a life sentence in Germany for murder. This obviously was a non-starter for the Germans.
According to CNN, there were other offers made to secure the release of Paul Whelan, such as Alexander Vinnik, a Russian national extradited to the US in August on allegations of money laundering, hacking and extortion. The US also offered to trade Roman Seleznev, a convicted Russian cyber-criminal currently serving a 14-year sentence in the US, both individuals didn’t seem appealing to Russia.
Instead, the prisoner that Russia wanted was a person by the name of Viktor Bout. I
won’t get into his full background, but by all accounts he was a pretty bad dude. I don’t think you can share the same moniker as the legend Nicholas Cage in the movie, “Lord
of War” if your only crime was shoplifting, so make of it what you will. However, if you’re interested, you can read more about him here, not Nicholas Cage, but Viktor Bout.
If you’re thinking America got the short end of the stick on this deal, you would be correct. I can’t recall a time in hostage negotiations where the person in the better position got a lesser deal. For instance, I don’t necessarily think Russia was asking for relief sanctions like they were back in 2019 during the Trump Administration. They wanted someone that was a heavy hitter in their government, and one that they could parade around as a win for their country.
Needless to say, Putin had the better hand to play here and we [Americans] weren’t in a good position to negotiate. But why did the choices boil down to just Brittney Griner or Paul Whelan? According to CBS, there are roughly 40-50 Americans detained in foreign countries, so why her, and why now. It’s simple, she’s famous’ish. I had a hard time coming to this conclusion for a lot of different reasons, the least of which is she’s a person of color, identifies with the LGBTQ+ community, and gets paid disproportionately less than her male counterparts. So as a Democrat her release, in a way, could be a win for social justice.
But the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that if Brittney Griner, outside of her notoriety in the WNBA, was just your ordinary citizen arrested in a foreign country it would be a small blip in the news cycle. Don’t believe me?
When did you first learn about Paul Whelan?
Was it last week?
Maybe another way to think about it is can you name at least one other person of the 40-50 detained Americans abroad?
If you can’t, don’t worry, neither could I. But this proves my point, Brittney Griner is a well-known person and it’s this notoriety that placed public, and political, pressure for her release. She has been in a Russian prison for several months, and a quick Google search of ‘Brittney Griner in Russian Prison’ yields roughly 56 million results, conversely using ‘Paul Whelan in Russian Prison’ yields only six million; he’s been in jail since 2018.
Paul Whelan probably had his best opportunity for release during the Trump era. Why? Because America had one of Russia’s alleged spies, Maria Butina. If you’re unaware of who Maria Butina is, it’s definitely worth your time to do a little research. In short, Maria Butina was a gun rights activist who sought to infiltrate conservative U.S. political groups and promote Russia’s agenda around the time that Donald Trump rose to power. To say she was successful and good at her job would be an understatement.
Maria plead guilty to conspiring with a senior Russian official to access the National Rifle Association and other groups without registering with the U.S. Justice Department. For what it is worth, her boyfriend while in the states was former-Overstock CEO Paul Erickson. He was arrested for unrelated fraud charges, but pardoned by Trump in his final days.
The reason Butina is important in this context is because CIA officials believe that Paul Whelan was detained in Russia as retaliation for her arrest. After she finished her 18 month sentence she was released back to Russia, while Paul Whelan remained. Not without irony, Maria Butina is doing her rounds on Russian media gloating about the position of strength through which Russia was able to make this prisoner swap.
To say that former President, Donald Trump was not aware of Paul Whelan’s situation would be incorrect. He was President after all, and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that his Presidential Daily Briefings around the time included information about Paul Whelan. Moreover, at the White House, when asked about Paul Whelan’s detention he responds, “Yeah, we're looking into that. We're looking into that. Yeah”.
Paul Whelan’s own brother, David Whelan, has been very outspoken about Trump over
the past several days after Brittney Griner’s release. First expressing his relief and gratitude that Griner is free, but also critical of the former President’s sudden interest in his brother’s detainment by tweeting, “Former President Trump appears to have
mentioned my brother #PaulWhelan's wrongful detention more in the last 24 hours than he did in the 2 years of his presidency in which Paul was held hostage by #Russia (zero). I don't suggest he cares now any more than he did then (zero)”
Despite my earlier acknowledgement that Brittney Griner’s notoriety played a huge role in her release, I cannot express enough how happy I am that an American has been released back to her loved ones in America. As I stated in the opening, this story has many layers to it, but not every issue has to have mutually exclusive themes. I can be thankful that an African-American Lesbian has returned home and is safe with her wife, while at the same time acknowledge the circumstances that privileged her over many other Americans still detained. I pray that all of the Americans held abroad get their opportunity to be reunited with their families someday soon, but in order for that to happen as expeditiously as it did for Griner, they’ll need advocates. I hope that Brittney Griner uses her new found freedom to raise awareness and advocate for those left behind, as it was her notoriety that helped secure her release, and perhaps it can do the same for those not as famous.