The best chance that American superstar basketball player and Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner has to come home from Russia, where she has been imprisoned on dubious drug charges since February, is if the Biden administration agrees to a prisoner swap with Russia.
But the convicted felon that the Russians apparently want in exchange for releasing Griner is Viktor Bout, the notorious Russian-born arms dealer nicknamed the “Merchant of Death,” who is serving a 25-year sentence at a federal prison in Illinois for conspiring to kill Americans and selling weapons to a Colombian guerrilla group.
There is a vast asymmetry between Griner’s alleged crime — she was detained at an airport near Moscow because she apparently had a vape cartridge with hashish oil in her luggage — and Bout’s criminal “career of arming bloody conflicts and supporting rogue regimes across multiple continents,” as federal prosecutors put it. That’s why Biden should push for a 2- or 3-for-1 prisoner swap and include former US Marine Paul Whelan, who has been in a Moscow prison for more than three years on espionage charges, and Marc Fogel, an American teacher arrested last year and sentenced last month to 14 years for cannabis smuggling.
Griner’s trial in Russia, expected to be a sham, resumed this week with witnesses testifying on her behalf, such as the general manager of the professional Russian team Griner played for. On Friday, her lawyers showed the Russian court evidence that Griner was prescribed medical cannabis in the United States for a chronic injury. The next hearing was scheduled for July 26. Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges; she faces up to 10 years in prison.
Prisoner swaps with Russia are nothing new, so there’s no need to worry about setting a problematic precedent. Russia has long tried to secure the release of Bout — on whom the 2005 Hollywood movie “Lord of War” starring Nicholas Cage is loosely based — but the federal government has not relented. This time, a simple fact favors the exchange: Bout could very well be released in five years anyway under federal sentencing rules. One could argue that Bout, who was arrested in 2008, convicted in 2011, and sentenced in 2012, has been behind bars long enough that a measure of justice has been served in his case.
Whether that’s fair enough is in the eye of the beholder. But what certainly isn’t is the profound injustice Griner faces. Americans have to follow foreign laws when they are in foreign countries. But the offense of carrying a vape cartridge has nowhere near a significant enough impact on society to warrant a 10-year prison sentence. In contrast, Bout sold weapons and enabled civil conflicts in some of the world’s most vulnerable regions, like Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. In 2002, a former US government official described him as the “Donald Trump or Bill Gates of arms trafficking.”
And yet, even Douglas Farah — a former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post and co-author of a book that chronicles Bout’s “unspeakable atrocities” as an arms dealer in some of the world’s most vulnerable regions, like Sierra Leone and Liberia — agrees that “at this point, it’s not worth keeping [Bout] imprisoned if Biden can secure an innocent’s freedom.”
Farah is not the only one expressing support for using Bout in a prisoner swap. Michael McFaul, who served as US ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, has been on the record saying that he would take the trade. Asked about the potential harm for US national security in freeing Bout, McFaul told NPR that it’s a tough call but still a trade worth taking. “I would add others, by the way — not just Brittney Griner. Paul Whelan is unjustly being held. Marc Fogel is another American convicted for 14 years in prison in Russia for the same alleged crime as Brittney Griner. So I would pursue a swap to get all those Americans out. . . I would take the deal.”
Coming from McFaul — who had a front row seat to witnessing Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian rise after a controversial presidential win in 2012 and later became the subject of a Kremlin campaign of harassment and surveillance — it’s a notable endorsement of the idea.
Given the disparity of a Griner-for-Bout trade, McFaul’s right that it’s worth pushing to include Whelan, the former Marine arrested and charged with spying in late 2018, and Fogel. There’s little doubt that the Russian trials they faced were politically motivated.
US officials have not confirmed whether the Biden administration is pursuing a prisoner trade involving Griner, Whelan, and Fogel. As long as Putin is in power, he’ll keep using Americans as pawns. Still, the Biden administration should not stop at anything to secure the release of Griner and other innocent Americans like her caught in Putin’s sinister political games.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.