DANIEL VAUGHAN: Biden empowers Putin with Brittney Griner trade

Brittney Griner is finally free from the Russian prison system and set to return to America. That’s good because no American citizen should fear treatment like this anyone. The question with every prisoner swap between countries is whether the price paid is worth it. It’s hard to view Griner’s release as anything other than Vladimir Putin fleecing Joe Biden.

You can claim that Russia is weak, saying, “The idea that Putin is ever going to defeat Ukraine is beyond comprehension.” Or you can argue that you had no other options in accepting the Brittney Griner for Viktor Bout trade. These are mutually exclusive positions. Biden chose a lousy deal while the United States had all the leverage against Putin and Russia.

Beyond being a bad deal, it also appears that the Biden administration made the deal based on politics. Added together, the United States is releasing a prolific Russian arms dealer for a WNBA player in the name of politics while leaving a former US Marine behind. It’s terrific that Griner is free, but it’s hard to see upsides for the United States.

Viktor Bout: the Russian arms dealer.

To start, the Russians are getting back a critical arms dealer used to funnel weapons to enemies of America. Viktor Bout was serving a 25-year prison sentence for sending arms to people wanting to kill Americans. His nickname is the Merchant of Death, and his arms trafficking role inspired the movie “Lord of War,” starring Nicholas Cage.

Bout reportedly sold weapons to Hezbollah, the Taliban, terrorist groups operating in Africa, and more. There’s little question his arms dealings are responsible for American deaths.

When the terms of this deal were initially reported, the White House claimed it was negotiating for two US prisoners. Griner was the most notable, but Paul Whelan, a former Marine Russia accused of being a spy, was also included. The final deal is a one-to-one prisoner swap, Bout for Griner.

Politics in a prisoner swap.

The White House pushed back against claims of politicization. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said, “This was not a choice of which American to bring home. The choice was one or none. I wholeheartedly wish that we could have brought Paul home today on the same plane as Brittney.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was less careful in her words. Speaking on Griner, Pelosi said Griner is “Free to go home to her wife on the same day that we passed the marriage protection act.” And with Griner poised to return to the states within 24 hours of her release, she’ll be ready for the White House to use as a prop to sign the marriage protection act.

The point is not that Griner should be in a Russian jail cell. No American should be there, especially given how rife corruption is within Putin’s Russia. The point is that Griner received preferential treatment for her celebrity status on the left. At the same time, the Biden administration left an American veteran behind. Again.

Biden abandons troops.

It’s a theme developing with this administration. In Afghanistan, Biden chose to abandon that country. In the process, he abandoned hundreds of Americans and tens of thousands of allies. Many of those left in Afghanistan got stranded without a means to escape the Taliban.

In the latest National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the Senate stripped support of Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) that would help bring those allies in Afghanistan to the United States. Additionally, Republicans had to fight to prevent military members from being subject to vaccine mandates – one of many policies that have harmed recruiting.

Now the Biden administration has cut a deal to release Brittney Griner while leaving a former Marine in Russia. Actions speak louder than words. The White House can talk about caring about both people involved; it’s a bad situation all around. But when push comes to shove, the White House chooses those they prefer over veterans and US allies.

Given all the blowback Donald Trump got at the height of the Russiagate scandal, it’s easy to imagine the left’s reaction if it was Trump choosing to release Viktor Bout. The double standard is impossible to miss.

Biden cuts a lousy deal.

When you’re the country being fleeced in a prison exchange, claiming “this was the only option” is defeatist. The United States is the most powerful country on earth. It has helped bring the Russian military to its knees by supporting Ukraine. Russia’s economy and military are in shambles. Putin is in a Ukrainian quagmire.

The idea that Bout’s release is the only option when the United States holds all the cards doesn’t pass the smell test. As the late, great columnist Charles Krauthammer observed, “decline is a choice.” Prison swapping with Russia on the brink of economic and military collapse is a choice. Doing so to boost a domestic culture war policy success is also a choice.

Freeing Bout for Griner was not the only option. Granting Russia strength and leverage at a time of great weakness is a terrible choice. Biden got rolled like President Obama, who released terrorist leaders for Bowe Bergdahl (who later pled guilty for desertion). 

As a result, other Americans will face dangers abroad. Biden has made it easier for weak countries like Russia to claim leverage over the United States. Those countries just have to kidnap someone politically important to this White House. If you’re a veteran, you’ll get no support.

We celebrate Griner’s freedom and her return home. But it’s hard to find much else to celebrate when a weak Putin outmaneuvered Biden.