Russia will regard any prisoner swap as a propaganda win. But the real message we can proclaim is about American values.
Griner was arrested just days before the invasion of Ukraine, which is to say that she was grabbed after Putin and his circle had almost certainly made the decision to go to war. She was perfect for the part that the Russians wanted her to play as a possible bargaining chip. She is a prominent American, but not too prominent. She is gay, Black, and covered in tattoos, the kind of defendant for whom the average Russian will have no sympathy. Detaining her for a minor drug charge must have been an easy call for the Russian intelligence services.
Better yet for the Kremlin, the American determination to get her back home serves a Russian-propaganda purpose. Russia does not value all its citizens equally; some Russians matter and others vanish without trace. The efforts to spring Griner, however, almost certainly feed into a Russian narrative that America, too, does not care about all of its citizens equally and that we value racial or sexual minorities disproportionately—exactly the case that anti-Western hysterics like Putin have been making for years. Look at the effort the Americans put into getting this person back, the Russians will say later. That’s who they care about.
The fact that the U.S. has been trying for years to obtain the release of Paul Whelan—a middle-aged white male who has been languishing in a Russian prison for four years on trumped-up espionage charges—will count as nothing, because Whelan’s case never generated the kind of publicity that surrounded Griner’s arrest.
The Russians, for their part, are angling to get a Russian national named Viktor Bout traded for Griner and Whelan. (Griner’s harsh sentence is unrelated to the seriousness of her crime; rather, it is a signal from Russia that we must somehow reach a deal with them or she will vanish into the Russian prison system.) Bout is a Russian arms dealer, a major-league bad guy whose nickname is “the Merchant of Death.” He’s been in American custody since 2010, and is now doing time at Marion penitentiary in Illinois for providing weapons to international terrorists and conspiring with them to kill Americans. “I’ll get back to Russia,” Bout told a reporter in 2014. “I don’t know when. But I’m still young. Your empire will collapse and I’ll get out of here.”
Naturally, this is Putin’s kind of man, and Russia wants him back.
Putin probably sees this trade, if it happens, as a double win for Russia. Moscow gets a shady but loyal arms dealer back on the roster for the price of two wrongly imprisoned Americans, one of whom the Russian media will spin as a spy and the other as an example of a decadent culture. In the Kremlin’s eyes, we recover two worthless people while it gains a top-shelf criminal asset. And they get to remind Russians that America is the kind of place where the president of the United States will go the distance for someone whom most Russians would regard with contempt.
So be it. Russia is at war with the entire international order at this point, and allowing Putin to indulge in some cheap racism and spy hysteria is a small price to pay for the release of unjustly imprisoned Americans. Unlike Russia, we make the effort to care about all Americans, wherever they are. Often, both at home and abroad, we fail in that effort, but we start from the proposition that our citizens are not merely disposable pawns.
In a just world, Bout would rot in a U.S. federal prison. But his sentence is not worth the lives of any Americans we can get released from Russia. And Bout, if he is sent back home, will go back to the life of a man who lives among enemies and bodyguards, a world in which today’s friends are tomorrow’s assassins. If we can bring Griner and Whelan home, maybe Bout’s exile back to Russia will be a fitting and just exchange, after all.