Skip to content
The Basketball Star and the Arms Dealer Walk Free
Go to my account

The Basketball Star and the Arms Dealer Walk Free

But some worry that the circumstances of the swap may embolden bad actors to take more U.S. hostages in the future.

Happy Friday! The Government Accountability Office recently recommended the U.S. Department of Agriculture increase the amount of fish that is served in school lunches.

The Eight-Year-Old Accountability Office, meanwhile, is pushing for more chicken nuggets and tater tots.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • WNBA star Brittney Griner, whom Russia convicted on trumped-up drug trafficking charges after she was detained while carrying hashish vape cartridges at an airport near Moscow in February, was released Thursday after the U.S. agreed to a detainee swap for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who was sentenced to 25 years in prison by a U.S. court in 2012. Bout gained notoriety during his career as one of the world’s most prolific suppliers of groups like al-Qaeda and the Taliban, but the Biden administration said Thursday it had determined prior to the swap that he no longer posed a U.S. security threat. The exchange did not include the release of former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who has been detained for four years on espionage charges the U.S. has called politically motivated.
  • Mohsen Shekari, a 23-year-old protester, was hanged by Iranian authorities Thursday morning, becoming the first person executed in connection with widespread demonstrations over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody that have roiled Iran for months. Authorities accused Shekari of blocking a street during protests and stabbing a member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.
  • Shanghai Disneyland reopened to the public Thursday, the latest sign that China is slowly rolling back pandemic restrictions in the wake of protests over its draconian “zero-COVID” policy regime. Xi Jinping’s government on Wednesday announced the latest batch of policy relaxations, including some quarantine and testing requirements. The changes followed growing complaints not only from citizens but also from major business players like tech manufacturer Foxconn, which argued in a letter to Chinese Communist Party officials last month that the restrictions were damaging China’s economic standing.
  • The Biden administration announced action Thursday to bail out the cash-strapped pension fund used by many members of the influential Teamsters union, saying the action was necessary to protect the retirement benefits of hundreds of thousands of current union workers and retirees. The White House said that the relief for the Central States Pension Fund—at an estimated price tag of $36 billion—will come from money appropriated in last year’s American Rescue Plan.
  • The Food and Drug Administration announced Thursday it had amended its emergency use authorization for Pfizer and Moderna’s updated, bivalent COVID-19 vaccine, allowing children as young as six months old to receive the booster two months after completing their primary series of the original vaccine.
  • The House of Representatives voted 258-169 on Thursday to re-pass the Senate’s amended version of the Respect for Marriage Act Thursday, sending the legislation—which aims to protect same-sex and interracial marriages nationwide in the event either is eroded by a future Supreme Court ruling—to President Biden’s desk. Biden indicated he will quickly sign the legislation, which was supported by 39 House Republicans and all House Democrats.
  • Senate Democratic leadership will remain largely unchanged in the new Congress. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was reelected by his conference Thursday, as was much of the rest of his leadership team—Democratic Whip Dick Durbin, Policy Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, Steering Committee Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar, and Outreach Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders. Sen. Patty Murray will serve as president pro tempore, replacing the retiring Sen. Patrick Leahy.*
  • U.S. gas prices continue to fall after their major surge earlier this year, with Gas Buddy’s estimated U.S. average of $3.29 for regular unleaded dropping below last December’s average price of $3.36. Crude oil futures also hit their lowest level of the year this week. Experts attribute the sagging prices, which spiked following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to smaller-than-expected disruptions in Russian oil exports and cratering demand in China’s enormous market due to economy-stifling COVID restrictions.

The Basketball Star and the Arms Dealer Walk Free

Brittney Griner leaves the courtroom after being found guilty of drug possession charges in a Russian court on August 4, 2022. (Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP via Getty Images.)
Brittney Griner leaves the courtroom after being found guilty of drug possession charges in a Russian court on August 4, 2022. (Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP via Getty Images.)

For all of its geopolitical significance, the prisoner exchange on the tarmac of an Abu Dhabi airport yesterday looked fairly relaxed on camera: Two groups walked towards each other and exchanged a few handshakes before a tall woman in a red jacket and a mustached man in a baggy polo shirt switched groups as the cluster of people separated.

The footage released by Russian state media doesn’t show American WNBA star Brittney Griner’s face during the exchange, but the man—Viktor Bout, Russian arms dealer nicknamed the “Merchant of Death”—smiled as he walked away.

Griner, an Olympic medalist, was detained in February and sentenced to nine years imprisonment on charges related to possession of cannabis-derived oil allegedly found in her luggage while traveling through an airport near Moscow. Her fame—and extra vulnerability in Russia as a gay, black woman—created immense pressure to negotiate her return. But Biden administration officials have repeatedly accused Russia of negotiating in bad faith over her release as tensions between the Kremlin and the West ratcheted up over the former’s invasion of Ukraine. After Griner’s recent transfer to a secluded penal colony, her chances of making it home anytime soon seemed slim.

Until Thursday morning. “She is safe,” President Joe Biden tweeted. “She is on a plane. She is on her way home.”

Not unlike a transaction between two teams completed moments before the Major League Baseball trade deadline, the country eagerly waited for the full details of the exchange to trickle out. But it was a simple one-for-one swap, Griner for Bout. Paul Whelan—the former Marine and corporate security contractor detained in Russia since 2018 on espionage charges he and the U.S. dispute—was not part of the deal.

His family seemed to understand. “The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen,” Whelan’s brother said in a statement. A Biden administration official visited Whelan’s family to break the news in advance.

In an interview with CNN, Whelan himself was less sympathetic. “I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here,” he said. “I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four-year anniversary of my arrest is coming up.”

White House officials have insisted Russia wouldn’t negotiate for Whelan’s release, treating him differently because of the espionage charges against him. Russia claims Whelan—discharged from the Marines in 2008 for bad conduct—was caught with a flash drive of classified information, while Whelan says the drive was given to him by a friend in a sting operation and he thought it contained innocuous photos. He was working as a corporate security official at a Michigan-based automotive parts supplier at the time of his arrest, and U.S. officials have said there’s no reason to believe that was a cover.

But the circumstances surrounding his detention allowed the Kremlin to play hardball. “Where we were left with is either we bring Brittney home or no one at all,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters yesterday. “We made every possible offer available to us to secure Paul’s release, but there was no way to bring Paul home right now.” Still, American teacher Marc Fogel also remains in Russian detainment on charges over medical marijuana that are not all that dissimilar from Griner’s.

The other end of the deal elicited concerns as well. A highly wanted man, Viktor Bout for decades provided guns and ammunition to groups like al-Qaeda and the Taliban, violating arms embargoes on Liberia, Afghanistan, Congo, Libya, and elsewhere. Law enforcement struggled to build a case against him without cooperation from officials in countries where he operated, but Bout was eventually arrested after offering weapons to undercover Drug Enforcement Administration officials posing as buyers for Colombian guerillas—Bout, evidently the consummate salesman, suggested the weapons could be used to kill U.S. military advisors in Colombia. The prisoner exchange means Bout won’t serve the last seven years of his 25-year sentence. Russian media released footage of Bout leaving a plane in Moscow, holding white flowers and embracing family members.

Critics of the swap argue it will embolden hostage takers to seize more Americans—already a growing problem. According to data from the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, an average of five Americans per year were wrongly detained internationally from 2001 to 2011. That number leapt to 34 per year from 2012 to 2022. The Biden administration previously swapped convicted cocaine smuggler Konstantin Yaroshenko for former Marine Trevor Reed, but showing willingness to release even notorious convicted arms dealers to free citizens detained on thin charges could accelerate wrongful detainment. “We cannot ignore that releasing Bout back into the world is a deeply disturbing decision,” Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez said in a statement Thursday. “We must stop inviting dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans overseas as bargaining chips, and we must try to do better at encouraging American citizens against traveling to places like Russia where they are primary targets for this type of unlawful detention.”

Others have argued Bout himself may still pose a threat, even after years away from his business. Former DEA operations chief Michael Braun wrote that releasing Bout would not only be a “slap in the face” to law enforcement officials who worked to arrest him, but would also pose a “grave threat” to national security. House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted that Bout’s release “endangers American lives.”

Whether Bout remains dangerous all these years later depends on whether Putin decides to use him, others say. “Bout could be turned [out] to pasture and retired,” Steve Braun, who co-wrote the Bout biography that coined his “Merchant of Death” nickname, told The Dispatch. “[He’s] still fairly young, in his [fifties], but at the same time, he’s been out of the weapons delivery game for a decade.” His supply sources—Bulgaria, Moldova, Ukraine—and contacts in Liberia, Libya, Afghanistan, and elsewhere have gone cold as factories closed, relations with Russia soured, and old regime leaders died. Influential Russians who have taken Bout’s place in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s circle might not welcome his return. “But he does know the arms delivery game and might well prove useful in helping the Russians in their dealings with Iran and North Korea,” Braun said. “Sourcing weapons from outside to replace what they’re using up day by day in Ukraine.”

Worth Your Time

  • CNN’s entire interview with Paul Whelan is worth your time, as is Manuel Roig-Franzia’s piece on Marc Fogel in the Washington Post. After entering the country with half an ounce of medical marijuana he’d been prescribed for chronic pain, the 60-year-old Fogel—in Russia to teach International Baccalaureate history courses—was sentenced in June to a whopping 14 years in prison. “In suburban Pittsburgh, Jane Fogel has been watching the Griner case spool out and wondered whether her husband has been forgotten,” Roig-Franzia writes. “Griner’s wife, Cherelle, received a call from the president. The Fogels have been stalled at the mid-functionary level of the U.S. State Department. Speculation about a possible prisoner swap before Blinken’s announcement on Wednesday had earlier trickled into his Russian prison cell, compounding his anxiety. ‘That hurt,’ Marc Fogel wrote in a letter home referencing the prisoner-exchange reports. ‘Teachers are at least as important as bballers.’”
  • 2022 has been a year of previously unimaginable breakthroughs in consumer-facing artificial intelligence, and this week the internet went crazy over the latest example of the trend: ChatGPT, the latest and greatest publicly available language model from the company OpenAI. Over at The Atlantic, Jacob Stern has collated a number of interesting “conversations” between users and the model that give a sense of the remarkable power—as well as the definite and sometimes alarming limitations—of the bleeding edge of human-AI interaction. “Along with the screenshots has come a frenzy of speculation about what this latest development could augur for the future,” he writes. “Unlike previous iterations, ChatGPT remembers what users have told it in the past: Could it function as a therapist? Could it soon render Google obsolete? Could it render all white-collar work obsolete? Maybe. But for now, in practice, ChatGPT is mainly a meme machine.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • In yesterday’s Boiling Frogs (🔒), Nick ruefully commends Vladimir Putin’s diplomatic legerdemain in negotiating the Bout/Griner prisoner swap with Joe Biden. “Griner’s fame ensured that her case wouldn’t be forgotten,” he writes. “The White House would have to make a deal with Moscow to gain her release. And Putin knew it, and he tailored his demands accordingly.” Was it worth the price of releasing a “comically, soullessly evil” figure like Viktor Bout? “It’s nice to know that she’s coming home. But it’s not universally true that freeing an American hostage is cause for rejoicing.”
  • And in yesterday’s edition of The Current (🔒), Klon shared some excerpts of a briefing he gave on Russia’s cyber operations in Ukraine and Poland to a group of Senate foreign policy and national security staffers at a policy lunch this week. “American support to Ukraine is surfacing our very serious need for investment in our defense industrial base, and this is critical for our ability to confront China,” he writes. “We’re realizing that, if the United States is going to be the ‘arsenal of democracy,’ we need to have a defense industrial base capable of building and sustaining that arsenal. And we’re thankfully moving in the right direction.”
  • On yesterday’s episode of the Dispatch Podcast, our fearless leaders ask: Will the aftermath of Herschel Walker’s defeat in Georgia create a rare window for Republican introspection? And can the infotainment right be part of the solution? Stick around for the latest round of discourse on the Hunter Biden laptop scandal (resuscitated this week thanks to leaked files about Twitter’s suppression of the story ahead of the 2020 election) and the Electoral Count Act, which is still moldering in legislative limbo with time running out in the lame duck.
  • On the site today, Charlotte Lawson explains how China’s stringent zero-COVID policy regime may backfire even on the public health front, since the country has never sufficiently prepared for a pandemic wave and both natural and vaccine-induced immunity remain low. And Audrey Fahlberg reports on Democratic party infighting in New York, where a weak midterm showing has progressives gunning for party chairman Jay Jacobs.

Let Us Know

Did the Biden administration do the right thing in agreeing to the Brittney Griner swap?

*Correction, December 9: An item in the Quick Hits section mistakenly identified Chuck Schumer as the Senate minority leader.

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.