The prisoner trade of WNBA player Brittney Griner for terrorist arms dealer Viktor Bout is a significant political victory for Vladimir Putin. The Russian president has won the one-for-one swap of a Russian intelligence agent convicted of conspiring to kill Americans for a WNBA player who, even Russia admits, was simply carrying a small amount of cannabis oil on her person.
The immediate benefits for Putin are twofold.
First, this swap gives Putin some useful propaganda to present himself as having gotten the better of the United States. The Russian government took great pleasure in the Biden administration’s far too visible display of desperation to reach an agreement over Griner. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken pushed for a deal back in July, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s spokeswoman responded that Lavrov would “pay attention to this request when time permits. Now, he has a busy schedule.” Put simply, America looks weak, and Russia looks strong. This perception represents the apex of Russian nationalist propaganda narratives.
It’s a timely win for Putin. Russian forces face increasingly grave odds in Ukraine, and the Russian public is increasingly aware of this struggle. It is notable, for example, that the deal’s exclusion of the bad-conduct-discharged former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan is featuring heavily in Russian state media. Putin can thus continue to leverage Whelan’s suffering, which his family suggests is escalating. Whelan’s status as a former Marine makes him a particularly valuable propaganda tool.
Second, even if only marginally, this agreement will give Putin confidence that his pressure campaign against the West over Ukraine is succeeding.
Putin is now throwing his increasingly depleted long-range missile stocks at Ukraine’s energy infrastructure in a desperate attempt to freeze its population and force President Volodymyr Zelensky to offer concessions. But while Ukraine is standing firm, the leaders of Germany and France, the European Union’s two most powerful economic and political powers, are making increasingly overt calls for a ceasefire between Ukraine and Russia. The battlefield status and Putin’s adamant demand that Ukraine make major territorial concessions in return for talks mean that these Franco-German calls suit Russia far more than Ukraine. But even though they have done comparatively little to support Ukraine, Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz seem to have decided that the economic strife born of the conflict now demands Kyiv’s concessions. Via Bout’s release, Putin now broadcasts to the EU that he has secured the initiative with Washington.
President Joe Biden should thus act quickly to make two points clear. First, Americans should think very carefully before traveling to Russia. Second, this deal is an isolated matter, and the U.S. remains committed to a realistic Ukrainian victory.