Trading in Weakness
The United States traded the world’s most notorious arms dealer for a WNBA player.
In normal circumstances, the trade of a WNBA player would have a hard time breaking into local sports pages, to say nothing of national front-page headlines. In normal circumstances, though, a WNBA player isn’t typically traded for the world’s most notorious arms dealer.
On Thursday morning, President Joe Biden tweeted out two pictures of Cherelle Griner, the second “wife” of WNBA superstar Brittney Griner, with himself, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the Oval Office.
“Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner,” Biden wrote. “She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home.”
Griner, whom few people had heard of before the events of these last few months, was arrested on February 17 in Russia, where she plays for a women’s basketball league in the WNBA off-season. At Sheremetyevo International Airport, the Russian Federal Customs Service discovered vape cartridges containing cannabis oil (which is illegal in Russia) in Griner’s possession. Griner pled guilty on July 7 and was sentenced on August 4 to nine years in prison and a fine roughly equivalent to $16,000.
Since February, U.S. officials have insisted that Griner was “wrongfully detained” in vague connection to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which occurred a week after Griner’s smuggling arrest. A former DoD official tasked with Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia worried that Griner could be used as a “high-profile hostage” for leverage against U.S. sanctions.
Sure, Brittney Griner was “wrongfully detained,” in the same way that most American convicts are “wrongfully imprisoned.” She broke a law, got caught, was found guilty at trial, and now presents a major inconvenience to the narrative of certain interested parties. A graver injustice can hardly be imagined.
Lest anyone accuse me of cruelty, I will say that Brittney Griner should never have been in a Russian prison to begin with. As a general rule, I don’t think any American should be in a Russian prison. As a general rule, I don’t think any American should spend long periods of time abroad entertaining foreign oligarchs for obscene salaries. (Griner’s Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, is headed by mining billionaire Andrei Kozitsyn, listed on the Treasury Department’s roster of state-owned company leaders who are close to Vladimir Putin.) And if an American chooses to do so, then as a specific rule she should refrain from bringing any illegal drugs along with her.
And as a very specific rule, if an American chooses to go abroad for long periods of time entertaining foreign oligarchs for obscene salaries, and chooses to bring illegal drugs with her, and gets caught and convicted, the president of the United States should not trade her release for that of anyone known as “the Merchant of Death.”
From what I can gather, Brittney Griner is a very good women’s basketball player. She might be the best in the entire WNBA. So what? Would you trade the world’s best water polo player for, say, Osama bin Laden?
Viktor Bout was arrested and convicted for smuggling anti-aircraft missiles and other heavy weaponry in conspiracies to kill American citizens. Brittney Griner was arrested and convicted for smuggling small amounts of cannabis oil. As pawns on an international chessboard, these people are not remotely equivalent.
The sentence for Brittney Griner’s crime was probably disproportionate, but that injustice can’t possibly tip the scales against every other reasonable consideration.
As one-time TAC editorial intern Micah P. Veillon was fond of advising: “Don’t break Russian laws, don’t go to Russian jail.” Or, you know, do—then wait a couple months until the senile custodian of the American empire buys your freedom in exchange for that of one of the world’s most infamous arms dealers.
A very tall woman who throws a ball at a hoop for a living is now free early after being convicted of a crime; so is a well-connected, well-resourced weapons smuggler with a demonstrated proclivity for supplying America’s enemies. Thank goodness we’ll never have to worry about any kind of large-scale global conflict in which Americans will eventually be involved—especially one involving his less-than-friendly native country. And thank goodness war has not been moving for decades toward a form in which large-scale arms sales to extra-governmental forces will be a major, even determining, factor.
Set aside, for a moment, the moral dimensions of this imbalanced exchange. Try to wrap your head around the power dynamic it suggests. How weak has the position of the United States become that we can’t even work out a decent deal with an embattled middle power whose economy is smaller than California’s and whose military is struggling against a neighbor a third of its size? Did we just let the Phoenix Mercury handle negotiations?
The Biden administration, following established American policies, has delivered this country to the worst possible position: extended as an imperial player into lethal conflicts abroad, but simultaneously unable to exert any kind of meaningful geopolitical power. We have all the liabilities of empire and none of its advantages.
Russia invaded Ukraine in February of 2024. As the United States steadily increased its indirect involvement in that conflict—including sending tens of billions of American taxpayers’ dollars to Ukraine (where much of it has disappeared in the country’s notorious channels of corruption)—and lengthened a war that likely would have ended otherwise in the spring, the administration made virtually no attempt to aid in diplomatic solutions.
It was not until July that Secretary of State Blinken made his first post-invasion call to his Russian counterpart—not to aid in the peace process, but to negotiate early release for Brittney Griner. Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine imprisoned in Russia since 2018 on specious charges of espionage, was included almost as an afterthought, only to be dropped later when the Russians took a hardline in negotiations.
In remarks on Tuesday morning, President Biden claimed “this was not a choice of which American to bring home,” but whether to bring home any Americans or none.
That’s partly true.
It is true that the American regime did not make an immediate choice to leave Paul Whelan behind. But it has chosen weakness, time and time again. It has labored in service of disordered priorities since long before Brittney Griner became its towering pothead poster child. Russia kept Paul Whelan because it could; it got the Merchant of Death released because it could. Brittney Griner will stand in history as a monument to American decline; her saga may mark the point when failure after failure after failure totalled up to something irreversible.
Forget everything else. That is why Viktor Bout is free and Paul Whelan is not.
Get daily emails in your inbox
In 2013, Griner was featured prominently in Sports Illustrated’s “Taboo Issue.” The profile begins with a hilarious anecdote about the player putting on sunglasses and a hoodie in hopes of escaping her hordes of adoring fans. The journalist is surprised to report that “the disguise does the trick,” as “nobody shouts her name or approaches.” (The game is described as “akin to concealing a giraffe in a meadow,” which is an easy enough thing to do when nobody is looking for a giraffe.)
Other comedic tidbits are scattered through the piece, such as when Griner asked for directions to the “LGBT center” during her freshman year at Baylor, a Baptist school which was well known until 2021 for adhering to traditional Christian teaching on sexuality. It seems that Brittney Griner, for whose convenience the Leader of the Free World has now imperiled the great mass of humanity, did not think to research a university before choosing to attend.
It’s a bit like taking drugs to another country without looking up the country’s drug laws.