President Biden, Cherelle Griner (wife of Brittney), Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken meet with the formerly imprisoned WNBA star. Image: Getty Images
The end of Brittney Griner’s detention in Russia came early Thursday morning after the White House announced she was returning home safe and sound on a plane. The timing came as a surprise to everyone outside of the inner circle of the Biden and Griner family. However, the two people involved were not. The exchange of convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout for Griner took place on UAE soil months after UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyant and Vladimir Putin settled the details.
However, the secrecy that shrouded the negotiations also created a vacuum that could be filled with false narratives. The most common noise to filter out centered on allegations that the Biden administration left ex-Marine Paul Whelan behind. Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker Micah Parsons expressed those feelings on Twitter in the hours following the announcement of Griner’s release, before retracting his statement later in the afternoon.
The 2-for-1 was a long shot, and by keeping Whelan, Russia also achieved their aim of creating discord in the United States. Pass Rush Limbaugh might not stand this song for a while, but to Parsons’ credit, he changed his tune after being edified by those close to him for his uninformed recordings. He won’t be the first or the last either. Tackle Carlson’s misguided outrage was representative of sentiments shared by cynics who deem Griner unworthy on their imaginary prisoner trade value chart. Instead of being happy about Griner being able to spend the holidays at home, we have the Parsons of the world feeding nonsense.
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Alerted to Griner’s release before the public, the Whelan family issued a supportive, level-headed statement to forestall the poor footage of talking heads, who couldn’t wait to vilify the moment.
“There is no greater achievement than a wrongfully imprisoned person being released and able to go home. The Biden administrator made the right decision in bringing Ms. Griner home and completing the potential deal rather than waiting for one that wasn’t possible,” the Whelan family said in a statement acknowledging the reality of the situation .
Prisoner swaps are imperfect, but for the first time we’ve had an ex-president who didn’t lift a finger to help Whelan, angered by the safe return of an American. Given how low a certain segment of the population thinks about black women, lesbians and women’s sports, the instinctive anger is not surprising.
Where was that energy after the release of Trevor Reed in the spring? In exchange for Reed’s release, the Biden administration handed over Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for conspiring to import $100 million worth of cocaine into the United States
The exchange of Griner for an arms dealer who sold arms to the Taliban came under 10 times more scrutiny than the previous government’s release of 5,000 actual Taliban in 2020.
In 2009, Sergent Bowe Bergdahl was captured by terrorists after leaving his post in Afghanistan. To rescue Bergdahl, the US released five senior Taliban officials being held at Guantanamo Bay.
Faced with the choice of trading Griner for Bout or nothing at all, the Biden administration accepted the only deal available to them. Too many people in this county pretend that international prisoner exchanges are as simple as bartering on Craigslist. Negotiations for Griner’s release have been hampered by strained diplomatic relations caused by the war in Ukraine and increasing economic sanctions against Russia after its invasion of neighboring Ukraine.
These were complex negotiations that dragged on for months, requiring coordination between multiple governments and, most importantly, secrecy. It has helped keep Griner’s name in the Biden administration’s ear, but now the pressure seems to be coming from behind the scenes. Negotiations for Griner’s release were reportedly thwarted hammered in October and has been kept under lock and key ever since. On selected occasions, the US State Department went public with negotiations, it got to their ears. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s press conference announcing the approval of a deal for Whelan and Griner raised unreasonable expectations and put Russia in the opposing position of playing hardball to make it seem like they weren’t rolling for the US
Many of the irrational fears about Bout’s release are detached from reality. He was a ruthless arms dealer in his prime, but he’s no supervillain. Bout has no intention of re-establishing a uniquely dangerous terrorist organization or unleashing advanced weaponry that will win over Ukraine’s invasion of Russia.
The way Bout is portrayed, you’d think he’d be a Russian Tony Stark set to solve the problems of the nation’s military infrastructure. He really is 2014 KG and Paul Pierce. The Griner swap was the diplomatic output of Billy King’s infamous Nets-Celtics trade. Bout was essentially retired when he got sucked into a covert operation, and at 55 he hasn’t worked at the arms-dealing industrial complex in over a decade. While serving in Africa, he developed close ties with members of Russia’s elite who are now part of Putin’s inner circle.
The “Merchant of Death” is a nickname, not a description of a superpower. He is not a religious leader or a political war hero. With Griner, the US got a young great, still in their prime, with a bigger platform and new life. The 8-time MVP, 2-time scoring champion, 2-time Olympic gold medalist, and 2-time Defensive Player of the Year honors has been one of the most visible stars of the WNBA since being drafted first overall by Mercury in 2013 and going from strength to strength will megaphone as a bout in Russia.