Sen. Jeanne Shaheen celebrated President Joe Biden’s agreement to release a notorious arms dealer to Russia in exchange for a WNBA basketball player busted for what many believe is a trumped-up drug violation.
“I’m relieved for Brittney Griner and her family as she’s now safely on her way home after nine months of unjust detention and imprisonment in Russia,” said Shaheen, who sits on the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “The U.S. must keep fighting for the release of Paul Whelan and other Americans wrongfully detained abroad.”
Griner is a 32-year-old center for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury. She pled guilty in a Russian court to charges stemming from the discovery of cannabis oil in her luggage while traveling to play in a Russian basketball league.
For months, Russia has been negotiating for the release of Viktor Bout, who was once on the FBI’s Most Wanted list just below Osama bin Laden. Known as the “Merchant of Death,” Bout was serving 25 years in prison for conspiring to kill Americans and U.S. officials, acquiring and exporting anti-aircraft missiles, and aiding a terrorist organization.
“One of the world’s most prolific arms dealers is being held accountable for his sordid past,” then-Attorney General Eric Holder said at the time. “Viktor Bout’s arms trafficking activity and support of armed conflicts have been a source of concern around the globe for decades. Today, he faces the prospect of life in prison for his efforts to sell millions of dollars’ worth of weapons to terrorists for use in killing Americans.”
Longtime State Department official Witney Schneidman, who tracked Bout’s career, called him “the personification of evil.”
While the deal for Griner’s release was widely praised by Democrats like Shaheen, many Republicans panned the president’s move.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) called the deal a “gift to Vladimir Putin.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) also raised objections.
“It is always a relief when a U.S. citizen comes home. Unfortunately, the Biden administration’s handling of this situation leaves behind other Americans, like veteran Marine Paul Whelan and teacher Marc Fogel. What’s more, Putin and others have seen how detaining high-profile Americans on relatively minor charges can both distract American officials and cause them to release truly bad individuals who belong behind bars,” Rubio said.
Critics echoed Rubio’s concern that Biden has now made it more likely foreign powers will grab Americans like Griner on dubious charges in order to trade them for bad actors in American prisons. Asked if Biden’s swap would encourage Russia to continue to seize Americans whenever they want someone freed from U.S. custody, Shaheen declined to respond.
Questions have also been raised about why Biden would bring home Griner, a third-tier celebrity, rather than Whalen, a former U.S. Marine.
Yuval Weber, an expert on Russian military and political strategy, told Yahoo Sports that Bout’s release may “incentivize rogue state and non-state actors to kidnap or imprison on trumped-up charges more Americans.” Weber also expressed concern that Bout might reprise his former role as an operative who exported arms to Russian allies at the Kremlin’s bidding.
“In sports terms,” said Weber, a distinguished fellow at Marine Corps University’s Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare, “we just traded a GOAT first-ballot Hall of Famer who still has many years of productivity left for a hometown Division III star.”