Joe Biden offers Russian arms dealer in exchange for detained basketball star Brittney Griner

Side-by-side headshots of Brittney Griner and Viktor Bout

The Joe Biden administration has offered to exchange convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout as part of a deal to release detained basketball star, Brittney Griner.

Queer WNBA star Griner is on trial for drug charges that could land her in prison for a decade after she was arrested at a Moscow airport in February.

State secretary Antony Blinken said Wednesday (27 July) that the White House has struck a deal with the Kremlin to secure her release.

“There was a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release. Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal,” Blinken said. “And I’ll use the conversation to follow up personally and I hope move us toward a resolution.”

He said at a State Department news conference he will grill his Russian counterpart, foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, in the coming days to respond to the offer. It will be the first time the two have spoken since Russia invaded Ukraine.
The deal would also see the release of Paul Whelan, a former US Marine who has been detained in Russia since 2018 on espionage charges. He was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison and has denied he was spying, saying he was set up in a sting operation.

While Blinken did not divulge any details of the deal, Washington sources told CNN the pair would be exchanged for Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death”, who is currently serving 25 years in federal prison for conspiring to sell weapons to people who intended to kill Americans.

 Viktor Bout stands behind prison bars

The release of Viktor Bout has long been a high priority of the Russian government. (Chumsak Kanoknan/ Getty Images)

Whispers of the deal have hummed for months, with the Russian state-owned news service Tass claiming as early as May that Washington was in talks with Moscow to iron out the prisoner exchange.

The Justice Department had opposed a prisoner trade to ensure Griner’s release, but the agency buckled under pressure from State and White House officials who support the deal, CNN sources claimed.

It comes as Biden has faced mounting pressure to free Griner, the two-time Olympic gold medallist and WNBA champion whom the State Department classified in May as “wrongfully detained“.

While Russian officials have been pressing for the release of Bout, a 55-year-old Soviet military officer who became rich as an arms dealer, for years since he was caught in a federal sting operation in 2008.

Bout has long maintained his innocence as he was convicted three years later of offering to sell weapons, including antiaircraft missiles, to federal agents posing as members of the guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

Only hours before reports of the deal emerged, Brittney Griner made her first testimony in her slow-moving court case.

At the Khimki Court outside Moscow, Griner recalled how she arrived in Russia after an exhausting 13-hour flight only to be arrested in Sheremetyevo International Airport on drug charges in February.

The family of Brittney Griner has cranked up the pressure for the White House to find a way to free the athlete. (KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images)

Police accused her of having two vape cartridges of hashish oil in her luggage.

Griner had next to no idea what was happening when airport inspectors pulled her aside after finding the cartridges. No one explained to her what was going on, what rights she had or how she may defend herself, she said.

“With them being accidentally in my bag, I take responsibility,” Griner told the court through a translator, “but I did not intend to smuggle or plan to smuggle anything into Russia.”

The proceedings went on for 16 hours, she said, before a lawyer came to help her. Griner was only given a brief translation of the accusations against her two days later at a hearing by a language interpreter.

Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges earlier this month in hopes to sweeten her sentence.

“Brittney sets an example of being brave. She decided to take full responsibility for her actions as she knows that she is a role model for many people,” her legal team said.