The Russia and U.S. Prisoner Swap 


Malaak Ayesh

Olympian and WNBA Champion, Brittney Griner, was sentenced to 9 years to life in Russia. Griner was prosecuted over six months ago for possessing less than a gram of cannabis oil and accused of purposefully smuggling it into Moscow. Her defense explained that she accidentally threw it in her bag while “stress packing” and running late. It was brought to the court’s attention that marijuana was medically prescribed to help manage injuries sustained from previous basketball games. The WBNA star went on to give an emotional testimony apologizing for her mistake claiming she, “…had no intent on breaking any Russian laws.” She continued pleading with the court repeating, “I had no intent. I did not conspire or plan to commit this crime.” Russia has been a second home to her since 2014 since she began playing with their UMMC Ekaterinburg women’s team during the off-season. Nevertheless, Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison on charges of smuggling and possession of drugs. Cases like the one at hand truly force us to acknowledge our privilege. Possessing less than a gram of marijuana is a daily occurrence for many. Yet in Russia, they would face a minimum sentence of 5 years.  

 This isn’t the first time an American citizen has been held in Russian captivity unfairly. Former United States Marine, Paul Whelan, was detained in 2018 on accusations of spying. Whelan was held in captivity for 2 years until finally being convicted in June 2020. He was sentenced to 16 years to life on charges of espionage. Previously in the year, there was a prisoner trade between Russia and the US, allowing an American prisoner, Travis Reed, to be released after serving a 3-year sentence. This caused mixed feelings within the Whelan family, with many wonderings why Paul hadn’t been released as well. Paul himself asked why he was left behind, however, the Biden Administration reassured him they were working on his release. 

US President Biden felt that Griner’s nine-year sentence was “unacceptable.” Considering the usual sentence for drug charges in Russia is 5 years, many also feel the Olympian’s nine-year sentence is unfair. Russian citizen, Viktor Bout, an arms dealer, and former member of the Soviet military, is currently serving time in Illinois. Moscow confirmed their negotiations with the United States’ capital, to make a trade. The families of both detainees met with the President on Friday, September 15th to discuss the swap. The Biden Administration has however admitted that Russia has rejected any negotiations proposed by the United States. It is unclear whether the swap will occur or if Griner and Whelan will remain detained in Russia for an indefinite amount of time.


Chernova, Ullah, Angelova, Liakos and Levenson. August 4, 2022. “WNBA Star Brittney Griner sentenced to 9 years in a Russian jail for drug-smuggling.” 

Hansler, Jennifer. “Paul Whelan, an American detained in Russia, wonders why he was left behind.” April 27, 2022. CNN.