Reports: Russia wants 'Merchant of Death' in exchange for Brittney Griner

For the first time since Brittney Griner’s arrest almost three months ago, Russia appears to have publicly signaled its asking price for her safe return, if multiple reports by Russian state media are to be believed.

Russia is looking to exchange the WNBA star in a prisoner swap for notorious convicted arms trafficker Viktor Bout, several state-owned Russian news outlets reported Friday, citing unnamed government sources.

Bout, whose exploits earned him the nickname the “Merchant of Death,” flooded fierce conflicts in Africa and the Middle East with weapons, U.S. authorities say. He was arrested during a sting operation in Thailand in 2008, extradited to the U.S. and sentenced to 25 years for conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens, delivery of anti-aircraft missiles and providing aid to a terrorist organization.

After Bout’s arrest, the U.S. alleged that his Russian allies tried to block his extradition from Thailand to America by bribing key witnesses to give false testimony. Since his 2012 conviction, Bout has been at the top of Russia’s prisoner exchange wish list and has been linked repeatedly in the Russian state media with potential swaps involving jailed Americans that haven’t come to fruition.

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner leaves a courtroom after a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Friday, May 13, 2022. Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was detained at the Moscow airport in February after vape cartridges containing oil derived from cannabis were allegedly found in her luggage, which could carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.  (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

U.S. ambassador to Russia John Sullivan visited Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow on Wednesday, but the State Department did not disclose what they discussed. A spokesperson for the State Department declined comment to Yahoo Sports on Friday when asked if negotiations for Griner’s release were underway and if Russia was seeking a trade for Bout.

“Due to operational and privacy concerns, we are unable to discuss specific details,” the spokesperson said.

While one Russian state media report quoted an unnamed source who described a potential Griner-for-Bout exchange as “likely,” experts in Russian diplomacy viewed that skeptically. William Pomeranz, a professor of Russian law and the acting director of the Kennan Institute, told Yahoo Sports that he interprets the reports as a signal that “Russia really wants to make that trade” but cautioned that they give no indication of the U.S.’s willingness.

“This is Russia saying, ‘Wouldn’t this be a great idea?’” Pomeranz said. “This isn’t the U.S. saying they’re interested. We’ve had other opportunities to get rid of Viktor Bout in the past and we haven’t done it.”

Griner has been behind bars since Feb. 17 when she flew into a Moscow airport and Russian customs officials allegedly found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. She is under investigation for the large-scale transportation of drugs and faces up to 10 years in a Russian prison if convicted.

Griner appeared at a hearing in a courtroom outside Moscow on Friday and had her pre-trial detention extended by a month. Photos taken at the hearing show Griner leaving the courtroom handcuffed, the hood of an orange sweatshirt pulled over her head and her signature dreadlocks peeking out.

Last month, the U.S. and Russia completed a prisoner swap despite deteriorating relations between the two nations. Trevor Reed, the former Marine who the U.S. says was wrongfully detained in Russia for almost three years, came home in exchange for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot convicted of drug trafficking.

The release of Reed leaves at least two Americans in Russia who the U.S. classifies as wrongfully detained: Griner and Paul Whelan, another former Marine sentenced to 16 years on spying charges. Their cases are now in the hands of the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, which focuses on negotiating the release of American hostages and others deemed to be wrongfully detained in foreign countries.

A 1-for-1 exchange for Griner could be especially unpalatable for the U.S. if Russia insists on Bout in return. Bout is a far more notorious figure than Yaroshenko, having inspired Nicolas Cage’s character in the 2005 movie “Lord of War.” Bout’s arms trafficking history also makes the allegations against Griner appear minimal by comparison.

Former top Pentagon official Evelyn Farkas hopes the Biden administration explores all options to get Griner and Whelan home, but she points out there is a downside to prisoner exchanges.

“This is the kind of situation that we want to avoid,” said Farkas, the executive director of the McCain Institute, “because the Russians will continue to seize Americans as trade bait if we agree to such swaps.”