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Russia won Brittney Griner prisoner swap, Putin still losing

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take: Hi, there. Ian Bremmer here. A Quick Take, wanted to opine for just a couple of minutes on Brittney Griner, who is back in the United States a free woman, and we're of course, happy to be able to announce that. But what do we think about this deal and what it means going forward?

Of course, we're happy whenever an American citizen is released when they've been unjustly held, in this case, essentially hostage for 10 months by an authoritarian Russian government with no rule of law. Yes, she had committed a crime. She brought in some hashish that she was vaping with, and that was a very stupid act in Russia. But the idea that she was going to get nine years in jail for it, no, absolutely not. This was, of course, the Russians making a point with an American celebrity and wanting to juice that orange for as much as they possibly could. And they did.

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Viktor Bout is escorted by Thai police as he arrives at a criminal court in Bangkok in 2010.

REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Meet the Merchant of Death

WNBA star Brittney Griner has now landed in the United States after Russia agreed to free her from a nine-year prison term for drug possession in exchange for Viktor Bout, a Russian citizen and notorious arms dealer known as the "Merchant of Death." Who is he, and why is he worth so much to Moscow that Vladimir Putin agreed to trade such a prized bargaining chip as Griner to get him back?

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US basketball player Brittney Griner sits inside a defendants' cage before the court's verdict in Khimki outside Moscow, Russia.

REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina

Griner freed, but in exchange for Merchant of Death — who won?

Russia freed WNBA star Brittney Griner on Thursday in a direct prisoner swap with convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. Big win for US President Joe Biden, but also for President Vladimir Putin. Who got the shorter end of the stick? On the one hand, the Biden administration could hardly afford the bad optics of allowing a prominent Black female athlete to be locked up in a Russian penal colony for nine years. Still, the US president can say he kept his promise to Griner's family to do everything in his power to get her out of Russia. On the other hand, Putin traded someone who got busted for just carrying a CBD vial in her luggage for someone who deserved to be called the "Merchant of Death." What's more, the Kremlin got Bout without having to give up Paul Whelan, a former US marine who's been behind bars in Russia since 2018 for alleged spying. Also, there are plenty of Americans locked up under awful conditions in other countries around the world.

What do you think? Let us know here.

WNBA star Brittany Griner in a Russian prison cell


Russian court sentences​ Griner to 9 years

A Russian court has found American WNBA star Brittney Griner guilty and sentenced her to nine years in a penal colony for carrying cannabis oil into the country. Last month, Griner pleaded guilty to the charges. The US State Department says the 31-year-old Phoenix Mercury player, who was arrested in February at Moscow airport, has been wrongfully detained and used as a political pawn amid Russia’s deteriorating relations with the West. In recent weeks, the Biden administration reportedly offered to exchange Viktor Bout — a Russian arms dealer known as “the Merchant of Death” currently serving a 25-year sentence in the US — in exchange for the release of Griner and Paul Whelan, a former US marine who has been locked up in Russia since 2018 for alleged spying. After the verdict was handed down, President Biden said that his “administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely.” Talks have been going on behind the scenes about the possible swap, but Putin has so far remained mum on whether he’ll accept the deal.

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