It was never about the gram of hash oil. But WNBA star Brittney Griner has been caught up in the new geopolitical conflict between Russia and the United States. She’s been imprisoned since her arrest at Moscow’s airport in February for carrying that gram. In August, Russia sentenced her to nine years in a penal colony.
This morning, the White House announced that Griner has been released and is on her way home to the United States. She was swapped in the United Arab Emirates for notorious Russian weapons trader Victor Bout, nicknamed the “merchant of death,” who has been in US custody for over a decade.
“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,” President Joe Biden said.
That the issue was elevated to the White House shows the importance of bringing home an American citizen held in heinous conditions. (A senior administration official said Thursday that President Joe Biden had “personally tracked” the negotiations.) But it’s too soon to say that it has bigger implications for the US’s role in the Russia-Ukraine war.
Here’s what we do know about how and why the prisoner swap happened now, and what else it might mean.
How Brittney Griner was brought home
The most likely explanation is also the most straightforward: Trading Victor Bout for Brittney Griner might have been the best deal for both Russia and the United States. It just took a little time for each side to realize it.
The Biden administration made a version of this framework public about six months ago, offering to trade Bout for Griner and Paul Whelan, an American corporate security director and former Marine convicted of espionage who has been held in Russia since 2018. But at the time, this deal didn’t appear to gain much traction.
What’s particularly interesting is that the deal was made public. “We usually would not have heard those kinds of details. It was exceptionally rare in the process,” said Danielle Gilbert, a fellow at Dartmouth College who studies hostage negotiations.
In the meantime, both Russia and the US took actions to improve their own leverage. The Russians followed through on Griner, with a court delivering a harsh prison sentence, and then moved her to a penal colony. In recent months, the US worked with partners to arrest Russians across the world, especially for evading sanctions. The administration official said the US has “leaned on” its partners globally “to convey to the Russians how serious we’ve been about resolving wrongful detention matters.”
The two sides kept jockeying until they eventually came back to a version of the initial framework. But Whelan was not included — perhaps because his case relates to spying, according to Gilbert. Whelan was visiting Russia for a wedding and was accused of being a military intelligence official carrying classified information and convicted in what the US called a sham trial.
“We tried for all sorts of alternatives. We tried to pay, of course, as little a price as possible,” a senior Biden administration told journalists today in a press briefing. “But ultimately, we feel the moral obligation and the policy obligation to bring people who are being held hostage or wrongfully detained home.”
There is a possibility there were other elements to the deal. There might be something entirely secret that we don’t know and won’t know, something that it would be both in Russia’s and the US’s interests to keep behind closed doors. After all, that’s how the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved, through quiet diplomacy, a complete picture of which wasn’t clear until later.
What happens now between Russia and the US?
Griner and Bout’s swap today may represent the unsticking of US-Russian relations — nothing huge just yet, but a significant, small breakthrough that could be built upon over time.
It’s possible that both sides walked up to the ledge of breaking diplomatic ties and realized they’re not quite ready to throw that relationship away, even if its conditions have been severely hampered by Russia’s brutal and illegal invasion of Ukraine.
Crucially, the US has not had an ambassador in Russia since September. Biden has nominated career diplomat Lynne Tracy, and she awaits Senate confirmation. But at a certain point, if Russia doesn’t allow her to take up that diplomatic posting at the Moscow embassy, the US would consider kicking out Russia’s ambassador to the US. These things are reciprocal.
The only way to protect US citizens in the world is to have diplomatic engagement. It doesn’t necessarily directly contribute to American efforts to bolster Ukrainian defense, and the White House reiterated Thursday that it wouldn’t broach broader negotiations with Russia (that is, talks on the war) without involving key partners (like Ukraine). But it does show how diplomats can work toward US citizen protection. One of the broader lessons from the Griner incident is that it’s simply not safe for Americans to visit Russia right now, as the US State Department has said in its warnings.
Another takeaway is that middle powers will continue to play an outsized role in the era of increased tensions between great powers with nuclear weapons. The United Arab Emirates, the country where Griner and Bout were swapped, has been a close partner of the US and home to many fleeing Russians. These countries that haven’t picked a side will remain powerful interlocutors.
Whether this was just the best possible deal or an indicator of a new breakthrough in US-Russia ties, it’s welcome news: to Griner’s family, to the Biden White House, and to all Americans who felt the pang of hopelessness over Griner’s arrest.
“The cases are often resolved through this kind of swap, and they take a long time, so it can feel hopeless when you haven’t heard any news for weeks and months, and you know an American is suffering in a foreign country,” Gilbert told me. “People are always working on this quietly behind the scenes, but we never see that until there’s a happy day like today.”
Clarification: An earlier version of this story said Griner’s detainment began in March, which was when the wider world learned about it. Her arrest was in February.