Two Utah experts talk about prisoner swap for WNBA player Brittney Griner

Dec 8, 2022, 5:58 PM | Updated: Dec 30, 2022, 11:17 am
WNBA star Brittney Griner stood in front of a Russian court Wednesday after being detained for poss...
WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner speaks to her lawyers standing in a cage at a court room prior to a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, July 26, 2022. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo)
(Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo)

SALT LAKE CITY — The US government on Thursday released a convicted Russian arms dealer, known as the merchant of death. He was released for WNBA basketball player Brittney Griner who Russia detained in February. Griner was convicted of carrying medically prescribed cannabis oil in her luggage and sentenced to nine years in a penal colony.

The Biden administration agreed to a prisoner swap, trading Griner for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout. Bout is a former Soviet military officer serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States. His charges include conspiring to kill Americans, acquire and export anti-aircraft missiles and provide material support to a terrorist organization. He has said he is innocent, as reported by CNN.

But Paul Whelan, who is an American, Irish, British and Canadian citizen, was not part of the swap. In December 2018, he was detained at a Moscow hotel by Russian authorities. They alleged he was involved in an intelligence operation. Whelan was convicted and sentenced in June 2020 to 16 years in prison during a trial that US officials called unfair, according to CNN.

Utah profs talk about Brittney Griner prisoner swap

KSL NewsRadio’s Dave Noriega and Debbie Dujanovic discuss the developing news with Frederick White, professor of Russian and Integrated Studies at Utah Valley University. They also speak with Ryan Vogel, associate professor and director of The Center for National Security Studies at Utah Valley University.  

“What’s your take, what does it mean that they released Griner and not Paul Whelan?” Debbie asked White.

“I’m not privy to the State Department’s negotiations, but I think the Russians probably understood that Griner has name recognition and a value that they thought they could exploit,” he said, adding the Russian government wanted the arms dealer released.

“They got Viktor Bout out, who they wanted to get out for quite some time. He’s been in prison for 15 years, but he had about 10 more years left on his sentence,” White said.

He said he thought the Russians were unwilling to give up Whelan because he has a higher value as a prisoner than Griner.

“I’m sure the Russians have their own side of the story. But yeah, from the outside, it looks like the Russians got the better end of the deal,” he said.

Special treatment for Brittney Griner?

“[Griner] says she doesn’t want special treatment. But when you have [NBA stars] LeBron James and Steph Curry and the entire sports world tweeting about you — “free Britney” — in my view it seems like she absolutely received special treatment because of her fame and stardom,” Dave said.

“If you’re high-profile, and there’s a good story behind you, and there’s a lot of support, sure. And that makes the pressure a little bit higher on American officials to bring you home. And I definitely think that happened here,” said Vogel. 


Dave & Dujanovic can be heard weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon. on KSL NewsRadio. Users can find the show on the KSL NewsRadio website and app, as well as Apple Podcasts and Google Play.

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Two Utah experts talk about prisoner swap for WNBA player Brittney Griner