WNBA player Brittney Griner was arrested in Moscow on February 17, 2022, exactly one week before the Russian government began what it called its Special Military Operation in Ukraine. Griner was returning home from playing in Russia during the off-season and was carrying CBD oil in her luggage. While legal in much of the United States, any marijuana formulation is illegal in the Russian Federation. She was finally released on December 8, 2022 in a prisoner swap for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
The terms of the exchange seemed unequal to many people who wondered why a man dubbed the “merchant of death” was allowed to go free in exchange for an athlete. Bout was an arms dealer flying a fleet of more than 60 Soviet era cargo planes in the 1990s and early 2000s from one hotspot to another, including Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, and Afghanistan. His companies even did business with the U.S. in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, flying material into Baghdad.
Yet Bout somehow ran afoul of his erstwhile business partners and he was arrested in Bangkok, Thailand in 2008 after U.S. agents targeted him in a sting operation. They claimed to be Colombian rebels looking to kill Americans and Bout took the bait. After three years of pressuring Thailand to violate its own laws, the U.S. succeeded in extraditing him in 2011. He was convicted of terrorism charges in 2012 and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
The “merchant of death” moniker was an overstatement meant to make the case for a kidnapping. After all, the U.S. has the world’s biggest defense budget, and uses coups, sanctions, invasions, and proxy wars to get what it wants. U.S. defense contractors are the biggest arms sellers in the world. The merchant of death nickname could be accurately ascribed to every American president and to their military contractors such as Blackwater, later called Xe, and now known as Constellis. Regardless of the name, it is a company of mercenaries operating under U.S. auspices.
Bout was stuck in an American prison with no hope of getting out until Russia arrested American Paul Whelan in Moscow in 2018. Whelan is a court-martialed former marine who was involved in murky business dealings in Russia. From the moment he was arrested the Russian government proposed to swap him for Bout, but the Trump administration wasn’t interested. Neither were the Biden team disposed to do a swap. But all that changed with Griner’s arrest.
Her arrest put Whelan and Bout back in the news. From the beginning Russia proposed swapping Griner for Bout. The Biden administration wanted to include Whelan in the deal but the Russians played hardball and eventually got what they wanted. Bout and Griner are now back in their respective countries. Bout is moving about freely, and even giving interviews. Griner is in what is called a “reintegration” facility at an army base in San Antonio, Texas.
There are predictable criticisms that a basketball player was swapped for an arms dealer, and racist claims that the deal was based on “wokeness” because Griner is Black and gay. The more important issue is that an innocent woman found herself in the crosshairs of a foreign government, a U.S. kidnapping, and now her continued inability to be a free person.
Bout is not alone in being snatched up by the hegemon. The U.S. renders people it labels as terrorists to black sites, Guantanamo is still open, and Venezuelan diplomat Alex Saab was kidnapped and is in U.S. custody. The U.S. came up with dubious legal rationales against Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, using the Canadians to try to do to her what they did to Saab. Russia didn’t like the way its citizen Bout was treated, entrapped in a sting because he hadn’t broken any U.S. laws. A kidnapping was the only way for the U.S. to get their hands on him.
Brittney Griner ended up being freed because the Russians were angry about Bout’s imprisonment. Biden eventually agreed to Russia’s terms, staged a photo opportunity with her wife, and then whisked her off to an army base where she is being reeducated, or rather reintegrated.
Of course, Griner is said to “hate America” for saying that the national anthem should not be played before WNBA games. Her mild statement was followed by an apology of sorts, “I don’t mean that in any disrespect to our country. My dad was in Vietnam and a law officer for 30 years. I wanted to be a cop before basketball. I do have pride for my country.” Her fence straddling did her no good and millions of white people are angry because Griner and other Black people exist at all.
Hopefully her reeducation/reintegration will be of short duration and she can return home as soon as possible. She will still be Black though, and living in a country that hates her and also gives itself the right to imprison whomever they want for whatever rationale they may need at any given moment. The U.S. doesn’t bother reintegrating some of the 2 million people who manage to be freed from the mass incarceration system. Perhaps one day Griner will shrug off the reintegration foisted upon her and talk about all the injustices created by this nation.