It was to relief and jubilation coast to coast when Brittney Griner landed on the morning of Dec. 9 at Kelly Field in San Antonio. As the whole world knows, this was the end of a nine-month ordeal behind bars in the increasingly authoritarian Russia of Vladimir Putin.
Home for the Holidays
In what proved to be disastrous timing, WNBA superstar and Olympic gold-medalist Griner (who had been playing for Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg) was popped at the Moscow airport with a couple of cannabis-oil vape-pens in early March—just days into Putin’s Ukraine invasion, with superpower tensions suddenly soaring.
In August, a Moscow court sentenced her to nine years despite her guilty plea. On Oct. 18, she passed her 32nd birthday in a Moscow jail, awaiting an appeal of her sentence.
The sentence was upheld by the higher court, and in mid-November, Griner was transferred to IK-2 penal colony in Mordovia region—where she voluntarily shaved off her signature long dreadlocks, because washing them in the cold was too challenging as she struggled to stay warm.
The US State Department was meanwhile assiduously working for her release—and it was all too clear that Putin was driving a hard bargain. In the end, Griner was freed in a one-for-one prisoner swap with notorious international arms dealer Viktor Bout—dubbed by the media the “Merchant of Death.” The pair even did the ritual walk-by on the tarmac as their respective planes touched down at the Abu Dhabi airport.
As the plane carrying Griner landed in San Antonio, Roger Carstens, the US special presidential envoy for hostage negotiations who had accompanied her on the flight, tweeted: “So happy to have Brittney back on US soil. Welcome home BG!”
President Joe Biden made his own statement: “After months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances, Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones and she should have been there all along. This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time. We never stopped pushing for her release.”
However, Georgia’s far-right extremist Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene immediately responded to Griner’s release by threatening to launch impeachment proceedings against Biden. She tweeted: “Another reason to impeach Biden. The President of the United States traded Russian terrorist arms dealer, Viktor Bout, left a US Marine in Russian jail, and brought home a professional basketball player. How many people will Viktor Bout now kill bc [sic] Biden set him free?”
The ex-Marine in question is Paul Whelan, a private security firm director who was sentenced by a Russian court in 2020 to 16 years for espionage—a charge Washington rejects as a frame-up. There had been speculation that he’d be paired with Griner in a deal with Moscow, but this proved not to be. Griner and Bout were swapped one-for-one, and Whelan continues to be held at Russia’s top-security IK-17 penal compound, also in Mordovia. The White House officially lists him as “wrongfully detained,” a designation he shared with Griner before her release.
Trump’s former secretary of state and CIA director Mike Pompeo likewise told NBC News: “The Trump administration was always clear, we weren’t going to trade bad guys for celebrities, because it creates the wrong incentive for the bad guys.”
And Donald Trump himself wasted no time, writing on his fledgling Truth Social platform: “Why wasn’t former Marine Paul Whelan included in this totally one-sided transaction? He would have been let out for the asking. What a ‘stupid’ and unpatriotic embarrassment for the USA!!!” (Sic)
It requires little sophistication to read the barely coded cultural politics here. “Celebrity” Griner was favored by the liberal elite, while patriotic Leatherneck Whelan was betrayed. This propaganda is obviously lubricated by the fact that Griner is an openly gay African American woman who wore dreadlocks and showed up at her court dates in a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt or “Black Lives Matter” hoodie. And, it goes without saying, by the fact that she was busted for cannabis.
Bout Pawns Biden
Before the Bout-Griner swap was approved, a White House-ordered “national security assessment” supposedly found that any risk posed by a free Bout would be “manageable.” He had less than seven years remaining on a 25-year term he was serving at the federal penitentiary in Marion, IL.
Bout didn’t make anything easier for Biden. He was barely back on Russian soil before he was put on Kremlin state propaganda outlet RT for a high-profile interview in which he dutifully declared his support for Putin’s Ukraine war and offered to put his skills to use on its behalf.
The interview was conducted by none other than Maria Butina, the far right-wing political operative who in 2018 was charged by US authorities with running an illegal Russian influence campaign within the US. Butina, who reportedly tried to broker a secret meeting between Trump and Putin during the 2016 presidential campaign, was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison after copping a plea. After her release, she returned to Russia, became a member of parliament with Putin’s ruling party and also serves as a mouthpiece for his regime on RT.
“A Russian man like me, I never understood why we didn’t do this earlier,” Bout told Butina, speaking of the Ukraine war. “I fully support the special military operation,” he added, using Putin’s official Orwellian euphemism for the unprovoked, outrageous invasion of a sovereign nation. The comments were quickly tweeted out by Russian media outlets.
And Bout was sure to make clear: “If I had the opportunity and the necessary skills, I would, of course, volunteer.”
This would appear to be an ironic understatement, as Bout has certainly demonstrated his special “skills” across several continents.
Death Merchant Has Earned His Sobriquet
There’s no getting around the fact that Bout is a baddie.
Accused by both the UN and Amnesty International of flouting multiple arms embargos, Bout was arrested at a five-star hotel in Bangkok in March 2008. Thai authorities issued the warrant based on information from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). A former KGB officer, Bout allegedly sold arms to the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Colombia’s FARC guerillas and warring sides in several African conflicts. According to the US Treasury Department, Bout built up his arms empire after the collapse of the USSR, acquiring a fleet of surplus military planes.
“Today, Bout has the capacity to transport tanks, helicopters and weapons by the tons to virtually any point in the world,” the Treasury Department said in 2005 statement. “The arms he has sold or brokered has helped fuel conflicts and support UN sanctioned regimes in Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan.”
The US government claims Bout made a $50 million profit supplying military equipment to the Taliban in Afghanistan during their first stint in power, back in the 1990s. In 2002, Bout went on Russian media to deny the charges, saying the accusations against him “resemble more a script for a Hollywood thriller.”
And indeed Bout was clearly the inspiration for the 2005 Hollywood thriller Lord of War, in which he was played by Nicholas Cage. He was also the subject of a nonfiction book, Merchant of Death by Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun, the source of his long-standing nickname in Western media.
The book claimed that planes from Bout’s fleet made several airdrops of weapons to the FARC between December 1998 and April 1999, and this was the angle used by the US Justice Department to snare him.
The US charges against Bout stemmed from a sting operation in which undercover DEA agents posing as FARC representatives secured a deal from him to supply millions of dollars worth of weapons, including surface-to-air missile systems and armor-piercing rocket launchers. The agents let slip that the arms could be used in attacks on US citizens, and the seemingly gullible Bout gave his tacit approval. He would be convicted by a New York City federal court in 2011 of conspiring to kill Americans.
Paul Whelan’s twin brother David has had some sharp words for the former president now presuming to speak on his sibling’s behalf. After Trump’s grandstanding, Paul tweeted: “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).”
And Fiona Hill, who served as an advisor on Russian affairs to Trump’s National Security Council, was similarly skeptical. She told Face the Nation on CBS: “At the particular time, I also have to say here that President Trump wasn’t especially interested in engaging in that swap for…Paul Whelan. He was not particularly interested in Paul’s case in the way that one would have thought he would be.”
This is a reference to Trump’s boast on Truth Social that he “turned down” a deal to swap Whelan for Bout. In that same post, he asserted that the Griner-Bout swap was “crazy and bad,” and that he “would have gotten Paul out.”
As Peter Baker of The New York Times responded on Twitter, this raises the obvious and serious question of “why Trump didn’t free Whelan, who was imprisoned in 2018 during Trump’s presidency.”
MAGA Republicans Betray Ukraine
All this is rendered even more ironic by the long-standing flirtation between the MAGA Republicans and the Putin regime—which persists even as the despot’s rockets rain death down on Ukraine. Viktor Bout would be heartened by Marjorie Taylor Greene’s efforts to rein in US aid to Kyiv.
On Nov.17, the notorious MTG joined with controversial far-right poster boy Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida and other House Republicans at a press conference announcing plans to introduce a resolution calling for an audit of US assistance to embattled Ukraine. This, despite recent battlefield successes, amply demonstrates how the aid is being used effectively.
In late February, exactly as Putin was launching his Ukraine invasion, MTG attended the far-right America First Political Action Conference in Orlando, where the organizer and master of ceremonies was the flagrant and unrepentant white nationalist Nick Fuentes. Minutes before Fuentes brought MTG to the stage, he grotesquely called for a “a round of applause for Russia”—and led the assemblage in a chant of “Putin! Putin!”
Fuentes would re-emerge in the headlines in November, when he joined Trump and Ye, the rap artist formerly known as Kanye West, for dinner at the ex-president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
MTG has been keeping up the anti-Ukraine invective even as Russian atrocities mount—absurdly portraying the conflict as a sequel to the Iraq war and creation of the US military-industrial complex. On June 30, she tweeted: “Ukraine is the MIC’s new Iraq wrapped up with a pretty little NATO bow, with a nuclear present inside.”
The role played by then President George W. Bush in Iraq in 2003 (launching an unprovoked war of aggression) is this time being played by Vladimir Putin in Ukraine.
Griner Pledges To Help Whelan
Brittney Griner spent her first week restored to freedom in a reintegration program at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. In her limited initial statements to the press, said she’ll use her expanded platform to fight for the release of Paul Whelan and some 50 other Americans officially designated as wrongfully detained overseas.
Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, told CNN: “It was one of the first things she asked me about. She’s very, very concerned about that. And will be sending a message to Paul.”
Upon her discharge from the Brooke Medical Center on Dec. 16, she posted on her Instagram page to thank her supporters around the country, and announce that she’ll definitely return to playing for the Phoenix Mercury next season. She pledged publicly to fight for the release of Whelan: “I also encourage everyone that played a part in bringing me home to continue their efforts to bring all Americans home. Every family deserves to be whole.”
…and America’s Own ‘Wrongfully Detained’?
The attention focused on the cannabis question by the Griner case could give greater impetus to addressing what remains a real human rights crisis here in the US. In a commentary after Griner’s release, Ari Melber of MSNBC welcomed the global star athlete home, but also decried the selective outrage revealed by her case. “If you’re outraged about it over there,” he asked, meaning Russia, “why aren’t you outraged about it over here?”
Melber pointed, by way of example, to the case of Allen Russell, a man who was sentenced by a Mississippi court three years ago to a life sentence for possession of 43.71 grams of cannabis—about an ounce and a half. This June, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the sentence, finding that it wasn’t a violation of the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
By the count of the Last Prisoner Project advocacy group, there are (even after the progress toward state-level legalization over the past years) some 40,000 people behind bars for cannabis in the US on any given day.
Clearly, work remains to be done on several fronts.