What Would A Prisoner Exchange With Russia Really Mean?

Brittney Griner is considered one of the greatest WNBA players of all time. She played basketball with her team, the Phoenix Mercury, until her arrest in Russia, on February 17, 2022. According to Britannica, Griner was arrested after airport security found cannabis oil in her luggage. The fate of her detainment in Russia remains unknown, but many hope Griner could possibly be returned to the U.S. through a prisoner exchange.

Although they have a long history, prisoner exchanges are fairly complicated agreements and aren't as straightforward as one might hope. The swaps are usually highly politically motivated (via Time). However, there has been increased momentum with the possibility of a negotiation to bring Griner back to the United States, according to Forbes. This all depends on whether the U.S. is willing to make a deal with Russia. However, this would not be the first time the U.S. and Russia have successfully swapped prisoners. So, what would a prisoner exchange with Russia actually mean?

How prisoner exchanges work

Prisoner exchanges with Russia, and indeed between other countries, have happened before, so it's not beyond the realm of possibility. DW, a German broadcaster, wrote a rundown on how prisoner exchanges work: A country or a political entity releases a prisoner from another country in return for the release of one of their own prisoners held in that country. This is often done for intensely complicated political reasons, but there might often be intense media pressure on a state to do such an exchange if the prisoner in question gets enough attention.

Prisoner swaps don't always need to be one-to-one — multiple prisoners can be exchanged. Sometimes a prisoner exchange means the bodies of prisoners are returned to their nation and families (via New York Times). Regardless of the conditions, prisoner swaps are likely to continue existing, as long as two political states desire some form of leverage. And Russia just might want to leverage its own position amidst the war with Ukraine.

Russia might want to trade Brittney Griner for Viktor Bout

Back in April 2022, marine Trevor Reed was freed through a successful prisoner exchange with Russia. Reed had been detained for two years in a Russian prison, and his release was notable for what it might mean for other future swaps (via CNN). Russia has shown particular interest in the return of prisoner Viktor Bout (pictured above). As NBC News reports, Bout was a particularly dangerous Russian criminal. His nickname, the Merchant of Death, came from his long history of arms dealing. The 2005 movie "Lord of War" was loosely based on his character. 

Bout was captured in 2008 by U.S. officials and has remained in the U.S. as a prisoner since then. As the New York Times reports, Russia may actually want to trade with the United States for Bout, and Brittney Griner might be that potential swap. When this would happen — if it does — is anyone's best guess, as prisoner swaps could sometimes take months or even years to negotiate. The waters are very murky here, and whether Griner will actually get swapped is still up in the air. Only time will tell if Griner will eventually come home.