News and Commentary

‘The Merchant Of Death’ For Griner And Whelan: Why The Russian Prisoner Swap Is A Risky Deal

In seeking the release of two Americans convicted of crimes in Russia, U.S. officials confirmed this week they’ve proposed a prisoner exchange for Viktor Bout, a notorious arms dealer nicknamed ‘The Merchant of Death.’

Why This Is A Bad Deal

If current negotiations succeed, the U.S. will free a convicted arms smuggler who operated on an international scale for close to two decades in exchange for Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, both of whom have arguably exemplified poor behavior on the world stage.

Griner, 31, is the pro basketball star who pleaded guilty to having hashish oil in her suitcase at a Moscow airport in February. Whelan, 52, a former Marine who traveled to Russia for years, was arrested in 2018 and convicted on espionage charges in a secret trial.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated the two Americans have been “wrongfully detained and must be allowed to come home.” Blinken said he’s presented a plan to Russia for the return of two Americans, though he did not mention Bout by name.

Blinken plans to speak with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, though it’s not clear when that might be. The two have not spoken since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, so this prisoner swap may be more about the two countries proving they ‘can still do business’ on some level amid the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, where the Americans are the leading arms supplier to the Ukrainians. 

Either way, the uneven nature of this exchange sets a bad precedent for America. 

Enter Viktor Bout

Viktor Bout is a 55-year-old former Russian military officer who was the world’s most notorious arms dealer.

Bout was in his mid-20s when the Soviet Union fractured in 1991, leaving vast quantities of Soviet military weapons throughout 15-budding post-Soviet nations with little to no oversight. As these countries largely could not afford to fund their militaries or pay their security apparatus, it made it easy for Bout to bribe officials to pilfer the myriad of Soviet-era weapons in their arsenals.

Trained by the Soviet military as a linguist, Bout acquired Soviet military transport planes and loaded them up with weapons to sell over the world; in places like Afghanistan, Angola, Congo, Lebanon, Somalia, Yemen and more. Bout sold weapons to governments and rebels, sometimes to both sides in the same conflict.

He earned the nickname The Merchant of Death,” which became the title of his biography. Despite facing international sanctions and threats of arrest, Bout managed to stay a step ahead of law enforcement until 2008, when he was captured in a sting operation in Thailand, organized by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. 

The Thais extradited Bout to the U.S. two years later, where he was charged with conspiring to kill Americans on behalf of the FARC guerrillas in Colombia, and received a 25 year sentence in 2011.

Prisoner Swaps

This latest proposal brings no indictment to the practice of “prisoner swaps”. During the Cold War, and in places like present-day Israel, prisoner swaps have been a vital tool in bringing home soldiers, intelligence assets, and political prisoners for nearly a century. 

However, they are normally subject to careful risk assessment and negotiation with legislators, the intelligence community, and law enforcement to assure that these trades are equivalent in value – and not imposing a risk on society at large. 

Trading For Griner

While many on the left argue that opposition to Griner’s release is based in racism and her previous protests against the national anthem, a look into Griner’s work in Russia speaks more to her character and why her trade for Bout may be a bitter pill to swallow. 

Social media circulates memes that keep Griner’s 2020 comments at the forefront of the argument to bring her back from Russia, when Griner told the sports media, “I honestly feel we should not play the national anthem during our season.” In that interview, Griner continued “I’m going to protest regardless. I’m not going to be out there for the national anthem,” she said. “If the league continues to want to play it, that’s fine. It will be all season long, I’ll not be out there. I feel like more are going to probably do the same thing. I can only speak for myself.”

Thus, many conservative Americans feel that, if Griner is unhappy with her nation of birth, this nullifies her argument that our government should go out of their way to bring her home after she plead guilty to violating Russian law. 

While many readers may see this as a valid argument – what’s noteworthy is the hypocrisy surrounding the fact that Griner worked in Russia in the first place.  The two-time Olympic gold medalist was headed to Russia for her second job.

“They love it there,” Phoenix Mercury President Vince Kozar said in an interview with Stars and Stripes magazine “It’s easy in hindsight to say, ‘That’s a scary place for an American.’ But that’s never been [Griner’s] experience.”

Griner played for UMMC Ekaterinburg during each WNBA off-season since 2014. Roughly half of the WNBA’s players play overseas to supplement the income earned in North America. According to Business Insider, nations that have fragile relationships with the U.S. are often the ones that offer the most to America’s brightest women’s basketball talents.

On teams in Russia and China, players command significantly higher salaries than they earn in the WNBA, where the average salary last season was $120,648, the maximum base salary was $221,450, and the top players were eligible to earn roughly $500,000 with bonuses and marketing opportunities factored in. Griner reportedly earned $1 million per season, roughly four times her 2022 Phoenix Mercury base salary, with UMMC Ekaterinburg, which is bankrolled by Russian mining oligarchs Iskander Makhmudov and Andrei Kozitsyn.

Therefore, if Griner’s stance on social justice and equality was so pivotal in her protests against the American national anthem, why would an open advocate for LGBTQIA+ equality, gay marriage, and Black Lives Matter be playing in a country that has a history of racism, and is currently broadening their 2013 ban on the “promotion of nontraditional sexual relations” to minors, widely referred to as the “gay propaganda” bill – especially to work for shady figures like Makhmudov and Kozitsyn?

Whelan’s Dishonorable Discharge

Whelan, on the other hand, presents even more ominous questions.

His five years of service with the Marine Corps Reserve, in the capacity of an administrative clerk, resulted in a 2008 court-martial conviction for attempting to steal more than $10,000 in Iraq. He also was caught using a false Social Security number to create a false account on a government computer system to grade his own examinations. As a result, Whelan was sentenced to 60 days restriction, reduction in grade, and dishonorable discharge.

Over a decade earlier, Whelan claimed to serve as police officer in Chelsea, Michigan. The Chelsea Police however said he only worked as a part-time officer from 1990 to 1996. He also claimed to have been a sheriff’s deputy in Washtenaw County, and yet the Washtenaw County sheriff reported no record of his employment. 

So, from an informed perspective about the three parties involved in this prisoner exchange – does the “Merchant of Death” really seem to be a rational trade for Griner and Whelan?

Members of the U.S. Military and foreign service can attest, one of the first things you are told by superiors when being sent to serve in another nation is that, “you are an ambassador of the U.S. in that nation”.

This means, as an American abroad, you should exemplify the best of our nation, respect the laws and traditions of the nation you are visiting, and do your best to not embarrass our nation with bad behavior.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire. 

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The Daily Wire   >  Read   >  ‘The Merchant Of Death’ For Griner And Whelan: Why The Russian Prisoner Swap Is A Risky Deal