Biden administration secures release of Britney Griner, frees Viktor Bout, The Merchant of Death


Photo used with permission from Wiki Commons

Arms trader Viktor Bout was extradited to the United States in 2010.

There are some articles that require a preface: First, returning an American citizen from a Russian prison is obviously a good outcome, especially considering Griner was no hardened criminal. Second, it is more than possible that there are behind-the-scenes negotiations that include favorable terms for America, or that this trade will continue to keep channels of communication open, and push towards peace in Russia’s unlawful invasion of Ukraine.

While traveling into Russia to play basketball during the WNBA offseason, Griner carried vape cartridges with cannabis oil in her carry-on bag. This bag was searched after drug-sniffing dogs indicated she was carrying an illegal substance. Officers searched her bag, and found these vape cartridges, illegal in Russia.

News of her arrest broke in March, and Griner remained detained in a Russian prison, her trial beginning on July 1. On the second day of her trial, Griner pleaded guilty to the charges against her. Griner, while in court, said “I’d like to plead guilty, your honor. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law.”

On Aug. 4, Griner’s trial concluded, and she was sentenced to nine years in prison. She was transferred to the prison where she would serve the nine year sentence on Nov. 17. On Dec. 8, Griner was released to the United States through a prisoner swap in which America freed arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for Griner.

Bout is known as The Merchant of Death. According to Politico, well into his career, Bout was blacklisted by the American government during the George W. Bush administration “for supplying arms to Charles Taylor, a warlord whose rebel army in Liberia and Sierra Leone drugged and recruited children as soldiers, carried out atrocities and imprisoned women as sex slaves.”

Furthemore, a Treasury investigation charged Bout’s companies with moving $50 million in arms to the Taliban regime, the terrorist group that planned 9/11. As the U.S. engaged in a long and ultimately failed war with Taliban insurgents, any arms trafficker involved with the Islamic extremist movement was a primary target for law enforcement, which contributed to Bout’s eventual arrest through a collaborative effort by the Treasury Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Bout has decades of experience illegally supplying weapons to all sorts of groups and insurgents on the black market. Those who buy on the black market often do so for a reason: they are typically locked out of legal transactions due to human rights abuses. Bout’s release enables one the most prolific arms dealers in the world to return to supplying weapons to those who routinely commit crimes against any moral, legal and ethical code.

It’s quite impossible to imagine he leaves prison with warm feelings towards America, that nation that imprisoned him for more than a decade for conspiring to kill Americans. The release of Bout seemingly ensures people will die as he likely returns to arms dealing with increased contempt after years of imprisonment. Another ramification of this release is the message it sends to autocrats and dictatorial regimes around the world: you better have a prominent American in your back pocket as a bargaining chip, it’s quite the asset in negotiations.

Good leadership, particularly the American presidency, often requires choosing between two bad choices. A choice Biden made over a year ago is a stark contrast to this prisoner of swap. Biden could have continued a troop presence in Afghanistan, and continued the stalling and demurring attitude taken by both Bush and President Obama. Instead, in an act of political courage, Biden completed the withdrawal from Afghanistan, ending America’s longest war.

The chaotic nature of this withdrawal, and frightening images broadcast to the public led to harsh political attacks and coincided with a steady decline in Biden’s approval rating. Biden made the right choice, regardless of the political consequences, knowing that in the long run, America would be better off, despite the temporary drop-off in his political standing.

In this case, Biden has made the wrong choice. It seems a near-certainty that allowing an arms dealer of Bout’s ability freedom will lead to the deaths of many. It is also easy to imagine how this decision undermines Biden’s admirable and consistent support of Ukraine. He has freed perhaps the best man suited to deliver illegal weapons to Russia, just when they need him most.

On the flip side of his Afghanistan decision, Biden has received positive coverage in the short term, as he has returned a high-profile American home, with images of joy and reunion broadcasted throughout the nation.

The long-term outlook of his choice appears bleak. It seems a near-certainty that Bout will aid Russia’s efforts against Ukraine. How long will it take for the newly free Merchant of Death, convicted of conspiring to kill Americans, to move beyond conspiracy?