Brittney Griner back home after US-Russian prisoner swap

After nine long months in a Russian prison, Texas native and WNBA star Brittney Griner is spending this weekend at home. 

She was released this week as part of a controversial prisoner swap for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, who had been serving a 25-year sentence on charges that he conspired to sell tens of millions of dollars in weapons that U.S officials said were to be used against Americans.

Griner, who also played pro basketball in Russia, was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February after Russian authorities said she was carrying vape canisters with cannabis oil. The U.S. State Department declared Griner to be "wrongfully detained" — a charge that Russia has sharply rejected. However, the US was unable to secure the freedom of Paul Whelan, who has been held in Russia for nearly four years, something that many people are discussing now.

FOX 7 Austin's John Krinjak spoke with former Pentagon advisor and Austin author Jody Ferguson about the matter.

JOHN KRINJAK: So you're an expert on U.S. Russia policy. What was your reaction when you heard Brittney Griner was coming home? And how difficult do you think it was for the White House to pull this off given the war in Ukraine?

JODY FERGUSON: I was surprised for two reasons. Number one, I want to start out by saying it's great news. Any time a U.S. citizen has been unjustly incarcerated. It's always great news to see when they've come home. I was surprised by two things, though, by the timing. Frankly, I. I knew I suspected there was going to be a swap in the works, but I thought that it was going to happen before the midterm elections to kind of give the administration a political boost. But second, I was also surprised by the deal in and of itself and the fact that we weren't able to get more of the people that are, have been unjustly incarcerated in Russia, along with Brittney Griner, to come home in exchange for such a big fish like Viktor Bout. I do think it was a difficult deal. And the White House press spokeswoman kept referring to how difficult a deal it was and that they thought the Russians were going to walk away at the 11th hour if they didn't agree to getting to exchanging boot for just Griner. And they thought there was going to be no deal. 

JOHN KRINJAK: You mentioned the criticism over the fact that the U.S. released notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, this guy's nicknamed the Merchant of Death. Do you see that as a risky move?

JODY FERGUSON: Potentially could be. We've in the past, our government has talked about not negotiating with terrorists. Now, I know in this case it's not a terrorist organization, it's a government. But any time you open yourself up to exchanges like this, you know, there's the potential that further down the road they can see this is a is a way to get to get other concessions. And that's something that's going to be a concern when we're looking at trying to get other American prisoners that have been that have been incarcerated in Russia and whether innocent U.S. citizens that may be traveling over there or living over there for whatever reason could be incarcerated unjustly and been used as trade bait, if you will, to get high value Russian or Russian allied criminals exchanged.

JOHN KRINJAK: President Biden's also caught a lot of heat for not also being able to free former Marine Paul Whelan. He says Russia is treating Whelan's case differently. What are your thoughts on that?  [00:04:37][8.5]

JODY FERGUSON: The difference is that Whelan has been is been in turn in Russia on spy charges, espionage charges, which is obviously quite different than what Brittney Griner… Brittney Griner was arrested for several grams of hashish oil not with the intent to distribute. When Whelan's been accused of being a spy. I don't know if that's true. I suspect that it's not true that he's being used perhaps as bait to get other people in exchange. But the fact that he is treated as a spy makes it much more difficult to get him released for sure. 

JOHN KRINJAK: All right, Jody Ferguson, Jody, thanks so much for being with us and sharing your expertize. We appreciate it. 

JODY FERGUSON: My pleasure.