Viktor Bout for Brittney Griner? The convicted arms dealer the U.S. offered for a WNBA star.

The prisoner swap for a WNBA star will infuriate a lot of people.

Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport after a search found cannabis in vape cartridges in her luggage. The WNBA star has since confessed but said she was carrying the drug for medicinal reasons on the advice of physicians. Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the U.S. had “put a substantial proposal on the table” for her release: the release of Griner and jailed former Marine Paul Whelan in exchange for Viktor Bout. Bout is serving a 25-year sentence for conspiring to sell weapons to a Colombian rebel group that was on the U.S. terrorism list. Bout was a well-known arms trafficker prior to his arrest in 2008 in a Drug Enforcement Agency sting operation; he was convicted and sentenced in 2011.

On its face, the suggested prisoner swap looks like an uneven exchange — and it comes not long after State Department spokesman Ned Price warned that “using wrongful detention as a bargaining chip” would endanger Americans traveling in Russia and other countries that might seek to cash in such “chips” in exchange for prisoners held by the U.S.

Newsletter Editor Cameron Hood spoke with Global Editor Tom Nagorski about the news, the nature of the swap and the controversy and impact that may follow.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

First of all, a prisoner swap will often be uneven in terms of the crimes or alleged crimes committed by one party versus the person you’re trading for. This one is a wildly uneven swap, even if you accept all the charges that have been levied against Brittney Griner in Russia, namely that she was carrying some vape cartridges with cannabis in them. Viktor Bout, the person in question on the Russian side, has been sitting in a federal prison in the United States, convicted of arms trafficking and serving a 25-year federal sentence.

He was convicted of agreeing to sell not just a few guns here and there, but tens of thousands of AK-47s and other weapons to U.S. federal agents in a sting operation many years ago. And before that, he was a very well-known arms trafficker. So what you have here even by the standards of uneven trades when it comes to prisoner swaps — no matter who you’re talking to, they’d agree this is a pretty uneven one and therefore will be controversial.

He got caught because the United States arranged an operation in Bangkok. Agents of the Drug Enforcement Agency offered an arrangement with Bout in 2008, in which they said they wanted to buy 30,000 AK-47s, some plastic explosives and other munitions for the FARC rebel group that was operating in Colombia. He agreed to the deal. The FARC at the time was running operations against the Colombian government and against American military operatives who were working with the Colombian government. They had been designated a terrorist organization, and what that meant was that Bout was not only convicted as an armed smuggler, he was also convicted of conspiring to smuggle weapons to a terrorist organization — and that carried a minimum 25-year sentence. And that is what put him into jail in 2011. And he’s been there ever since.

You also have diplomatic considerations here. Policymakers, diplomats, ambassadors, they don’t like the precedent that suggests that if you are a foreign government and you’d like to get one of your own citizens freed from an American prison, perhaps all you need to do is grab an American citizen on your soil, charge them with something, hold them against their will and maybe you’ll get a great deal in return. Just a couple of months ago, the State Department spokesman said something to the effect that wrongful detention as a bargaining chip was a terrible thing and it would endanger Americans traveling in countries all over the world. I think he was right. And so again, I think a lot of people in the diplomatic corps will also not like this news.

I would be stunned if [Russian President] Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin don’t make a great deal of hay out of the fact that Viktor Bout is coming home, if indeed he is. And you have to believe that U.S. officials of all stripes and all politics will be at least quietly upset by that fact. In other words, the nature of an uneven swap is such that it allows the person who gets the greater criminal, if you will, to claim victory in some way. And we know Vladimir Putin makes great political hay out of much smaller things.

If he chooses, and I suspect he will, he can make a victory for himself — in a PR sense and a real sense as well — of the fact that he has brought this man home. Russians have said for years, they’ve alleged that Viktor was captured and convicted in a case of entrapment, that he was not a terrorist, and that he should have never been in prison in the first place.

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