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Russia reportedly wants prisoner swap with Viktor Bout in exchange for Brittney Griner release

Matt Johnson
Brittney Griner
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

As the United States pushes to bring Brittney Griner home, Russia has reportedly set an asking price to secure her safe return, seeking the release of “The Merchant of Death” from US custody.

Griner was detained at the Moscow airport in February on accusations of drug smuggling. Russian law enforcement alleged the WNBA star had a vape cartridge containing cannabis oil in her luggage, promptly detaining her.

While the US worked quietly behind the scenes for months to try and secure her freedom, those efforts were not disclosed publicly due to the nature of the case. That changed in May when the New York Times reported that US officials now believe Griner was wrongfully detained.

  • Brittney Griner stats (2021): 20.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 1.9 bpg

Despite repeated efforts to secure her freedom and a return home, Russia has kept her in custody and repeatedly pushed back her court appearance. Most recently, Russian authorities extended her pre-trial detention by another month.

Now with public support from the WNBA, NBA and U.S. officials, threw is an increased push to bring Griner home safely. A price has reportedly been set on what it will take to bring her home.

According to multiple state-owned Russian news outlets, Russia is seeking Viktor Bout in a swap for Griner. TASS reported that negotiations are underway regarding a swap of Griner for Bout.

The talks come a month after the U.S. agreed to release Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenk in exchange for the safe return of American student Trevor Reed.

Who is Viktor Bout, the Merchant of Death?

Olympics: Shooting-July 30
Mandi Wright-USA TODAY Sports

Viktor Bout, classified by Russia as an entrepreneur, was convicted by U.S. officials for criminal intent to traffic arms and conspiracy to kill. The 55-year-old arms dealer earned the nickname “Merchant of Death” for his weapons trading.

Bout was arrested as part of a U.S. sting operation conducted in Thailand on March 6, 2008. The operation was conducted with the help of agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, Thai police and with support from Interpol. After being extradited to the U.S., he was charged with conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens, providing aid to a terrorist organization and delivering anti-aircraft missiles.

He was sentenced to a 25-year prison sentence in 2012 after the U.S. government made its case with evidence pointing to Bout being one of the biggest arms dealers in the world. He was believed to be responsible for supplying weapons used in Rwanda, Congo and other deadly wars in Africa and the Middle East.

Russia has reportedly sought his return for years and believes a swap with Brittney Griner is the best opportunity to secure Bout’s release. However, there are conflicting reports about whether or not the U.S. is willing to release Bout and return him to Russia.

Until both countries agree to terms, Griner will remain in Russian custody. While she is believed to be fine physically, the concern is mental and emotional health after months spent in isolation. The 2022 WNBA season began on May 6 with the last day of the regular season on Aug. 14. Even if Griner is released, there would be no timetable for her return to the court.