Russia has released U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner, who had been detained in Russia since February, President Biden said Thursday. In exchange, Moscow secured the freedom of Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer behind bars in the United States, according to U.S. officials and Russia’s foreign ministry.
The exchange ended months of speculation that the Biden administration was contemplating a swap to bring Griner home. The fate of one of the world’s best women’s basketball players came down to what the U.S. government decided to do with an imprisoned Russian arms dealer nicknamed the “Merchant of Death,” whose wild exploits once inspired a Hollywood film starring Nicolas Cage.
Viktor Bout, 55, is a former Soviet military translator who became an international air transport figure after the fall of communism. He was serving a 25-year sentence at a medium-security prison in Illinois for conspiring to kill U.S. nationals and selling weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The Kremlin long pushed for Bout’s release, calling his conviction “unlawful.” Over the summer, media reports in Russia hinted that he could be swapped for Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan.
Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges stemming from her arrest at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport in February. She was sentenced to 9½ years in prison in August and transferred to a Russian penal colony last month. Whelan, who was arrested and charged with spying in 2018 in a trial he called politically motivated, was not ultimately included in the exchange Thursday.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in July that the United States made a “substantial proposal” to Russia to secure the two Americans’ release — but declined to say whether Bout was part of the deal.
Russia’s foreign ministry said the swap took place Thursday at the Abu Dhabi airport in the United Arab Emirates after lengthy negotiations with Washington. Bout was given a conditional grant of clemency that was not completed until U.S. officials in the UAE had verified that Griner was there on Thursday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.
Steve Zissou, Bout’s New York-based lawyer, called the swap fair.
“As I have urged for some time, given the fifteen long years that Viktor Bout has been in custody since the United States government targeted him in 2006, his exchange for Brittney Griner, who has only been in custody for a few months, is fair,” Zissou told The Washington Post. “Hopefully, this is just the first of many reasonable agreements between the U.S. and Russia that will lead to better relations and a safer world.”