Americans left confused over the prisoner swap of Viktor Bout for Brittany Griner


Leila Assadi

After nearly 10 months of detainment in Russia, Brittany Griner was released in a prisoner-exchange with Viktor Bout.

Leila Assadi, Opinion editor

After months of detention in Russia, Brinney Griner, a two-time Olympic basketball gold medalist and WNBA star, returned to the United States. In February, Griner was arrested in Russia on charges of possession of hashish oil—a crime that initially resulted in a 10 year prison sentence. 

After spending nearly ten months in Russia, Griner was exchanged via a prisoner swap for Viktor Bout, a 55-year-old Russian arms dealer known as “The Merchant of Death.” Bout was convicted in 2011 on four counts, one of which was conspiring to kill American citizens. The New York Times described Bout as the “highest-profile Russian in U.S. custody.”

Once information about the prisoner swap was released to the public, confusion rippled through the country: Why did the US exchange Viktor Bout, one of the most dangerous men in the world, for Brittany Griner, a WNBA player? 

Americans are not wrong to believe that Russia got the better end of the deal because they ultimately did; however, prisoner swaps are rarely about fair trades. In this instance, it was about bringing an American home.

What most Americans do not realize is that the exchange was not about weighing one life against another—it was about freeing an American who was used as a political pawn under an unfair prison sentence. The focus of the United States was not an “equal trade,” but rather a weighing of the moral obligations the country has to its citizens. 

PV senior Rhema Saddler believed the prison swap was an essential action the United States needed to take in order to free Giner. “It’s not about trading an arms dealer for a basketball player,” she said. “It was about rescuing an American person from a wildly unfair penal system.”

Alexandra Meise, an associate professor at Northeastern, described negotiations regarding prisoner swaps as an impossible math that can’t determine the value of a life. “This is why I caution against viewing these situations as transactions or mathematical exercises,” Meise says. “Individual human lives and welfare are at stake. It does not reduce to a straightforward equation weighing one life against another or one specific charge under one legal system against a charge in another system. It is not that simple.” 

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre spoke about the prisoner swap, describing negotiations for the release of wrongful detainees as, “very difficult, that’s just the reality. Immediate results can feel unfair or arbitrary. The president felt a moral obligation to bring Brittney home.”

Griner was held in retribution for western sanctions against Russia as its war with Ukraine drags on, exposing the complex political and ethical dilemmas of prisoner swaps that most American citizens do not understand. 

Beyond that, many human rights advocacy groups feared for Griner’s safety as a Black queer woman in Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been publicaly cracking down on “gay propaganda,” introducing new laws that limit the safety of LGBTQ+ people in Russia. 

Releasing Griner proved that the United States cares about its citizens and will take necessary measures to bring unfairly detained Americans home. 

“People think that this swap made America look weak,” Saddler concluded. “But think about how weak America would have looked by not fighting for one of their own.”