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Merchant of Death traded for Brittney Griner. Russia refuses deal on Paul Whelan

Russia experts explain why Putin made a deal now to release Griner after almost 10 months of negotiations.

GREENSBORO, N.C. — On the other side of the world Thursday, an American plane met up with the Russian military on a tarmac in the United Arab Emirates for a prisoner swap. 10 months after Britney Griner was arrested in Russia on drug charges, she will return to her family.

First Griner had a medical assessment as well as debriefings about her detainment. Then she'll begin the process of reintegration. White House officials say Griner is in good health and was all smiles at her release. She’s eager to return to her family and the basketball court.

Merchant of Death

In order to get Griner home, President Biden authorized a prisoner swap for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. He was serving a 25-year sentence for conspiring to kill Americans by selling weapons to terrorists. His nickname is the "Merchant of Death." That sounds terrifying. And who arrested him says the criminal lives up to his name.

“Mr. Bout was A major threat to our national security and someone that we considered a grave enough threat that we poured a massive amount of resources into an investigation to apprehend,” said former DEA agent Robert Zachariasiewicz.

Credit: AP
FILE - Suspected Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout, center, is led by armed Thai police commandos as he arrives at the criminal court in Bangkok, Thailand in Oct. 5, 2010.

He says a swap for the arms dealer puts Americans at more risk.

“I believe we're sending the message that it is good business to deal in the capture and kidnapping, detaining of American citizens,” Zachariasiewicz said. “I have nothing but well wishes for the families. I hope we can get them home. I just don't think this is the right way to go about it.”

When you hear about all the terrible things Bout has done, it makes you wonder: will he go back to a life of crime now that he's a free man? We asked a Russian history expert at North Carolina A&T. Dr. Thomas Porter says the arms dealer is not a threat anymore.

“I don't think so because he could be arrested again. He certainly would not be extricated from Russia, but if he were to get back in the game so to speak, he'd have to use surrogates. And all these people have been murdered or put into prison. I think he's just going to retire,” he said.

Why now?

Griner was arrested back on February 17. In all those months since then, a prisoner swap could have happened at any point. But it didn't. So why now? The Russian expert from NCAT provides an insight into the Russian President's mind.

“I think Putin took the opportunity to conclude this deal because he is just now aware of what a quagmire he is involved in, in his special military operation in Ukraine,” Porter said. “He is finally getting unfiltered intelligence and getting real-time, realistic appraisals of the situation. He needed some kind of victory. I know the Russian press is playing this up as a major accomplishment to get this merchant of death back from the United States.”

Left behind: Paul Whelan

Britney Griner isn't the only American serving time in Russia. Former Marine Paul Whelan has been behind bars since 2019 - saying he's been abused and harassed in prison all that time.

The White House tried to get him too, but President Biden said Russia wouldn't budge because of the different types of charges he's facing. Griner was convicted of drug charges. Whelan was arrested on espionage charges.

"Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul's case differently than Brittney's,” said President Joe Biden.

Whelan's family issued this statement: "The likelihood that our parents will see their son again diminishes each day his wrongful detention continues. Increasingly, I worry that Paul himself won't survive 12 more years in a Russian labor colony."

President Biden says his administration will keep fighting for Whelan's release.

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