“She’s on her way home after months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held in intolerable circumstances.” So President Biden announced Thursday from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, alerting the press to the news that Brittney Griner has finally been released from a Russian penal colony. Biden spoke next to Cherelle Griner, the American WNBA basketball player’s visibly affected wife.
Following months of intense negotiations, the United States managed to secure Griner’s freedom in a one-to-one swap for Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer. Not included in the deal was another American prisoner of the Kremlin, Paul Whelan, who had been rumored to have been included in the high-profile negotiations over Griner.
Whelan, a former U.S. Marine and Michigan police officer, was arrested in Russia in December 2018 on espionage charges, which he denied; he was sentenced to 16 years in June 2020. Griner, an Olympic gold medalist, was detained in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, exactly one week before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on charges that she was trafficking cannabis oil — a banned substance in Russia — inside vape canisters. She pleaded guilty on July 7 and was sentenced to nine years in prison.
Few U.S. officials take the Russian prosecutors’ allegations at face value. The prevailing view is that both Whelan and Griner were snatched as hostages for exactly the kind of swap now under consideration, or as bargaining chips for lifting U.S. sanctions on Russia. “The Russian security services watched Griner closely and knew they could compromise her,” a former U.S. intelligence officer told Yahoo News earlier this year. “She’s a Black gay woman who could be portrayed as carrying drugs, and they waited until she departed. This was not legitimate law enforcement but cynical power games by the Kremlin.”
John Sipher, the former deputy head of “Russia House” at the CIA, said Whelan would have been unlikely to be recruited by any U.S. intelligence service owing to his compromised history: He was given a bad-conduct discharge from the Marine Corps after being court-martialed on larceny-related offenses in 2008.
Even by the Kremlin’s suspect characterization of Whelan and Griner, the allegations against Bout are far worse.
“In the late 1990s,” Jonathan Winer, a senior official in the State Department during the Clinton administration who tracked Bout’s movements, told Yahoo News, “Bout was the No. 2 target for the United States, after Osama bin Laden.” In fact, the infamous arms dealer, widely known as the “Merchant of Death,” has even been accused of arming al-Qaida. [Continue reading…]