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The Brittney Griner Prisoner Swap, Explained

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - SEPTEMBER 30: Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury warms up before Game Two of the 2021 WNBA Playoffs semifinals against the Las Vegas Aces at Michelob ULTRA Arena on September 30, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Mercury defeated the Aces 117-91. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Almost 10 months after her arrest while competing in Russia, WNBA star Brittney Griner is finally coming home to the United States. Griner was arrested by Russian officials in February 2022 for possession of vape cartridges containing hashish oil, which is illegal in Russia. Although Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison, her detainment was widely denounced as a political move on Russia’s part, and on December 8, she was freed in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was serving a 25 year sentence in the US for smuggling surface-to-air missiles and other weapons.

What is a prisoner swap?

A prisoner swap, or prisoner exchange, is a deal between two conflicting nations to release prisoners and repatriate them. Prisoner swaps can involve all sorts of prisoners, depending on each nation’s goals—in this case, releasing a Russian arms dealer in order to free a wrongfully detained American citizen.

In exchange for Bout, the Biden Administration originally wanted Russia to release another American prisoner, Paul Whelan, along with Griner. However, Russia refused to release Whelan, making the prisoner swap a one-for-one exchange.

Who is Paul Whelan and why is he in Russian prison?

Paul Whelan is a former United States marine who is currently imprisoned in Russia. In 2018, Whelan traveled to Russia for a wedding, but was accused of obtaining classified information about employees at a Russian security agency. Whelan was arrested for espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison, where he currently remains.

According to ABC reporter Jay O’Brien, Whelan’s family is disappointed that Whelan wasn’t freed as part of the prisoner swap, but happy for Griner and her family.

“I am so glad Brittney is on her way home,” Whelan’s brother David wrote in a statement. “As the family member of a Russian hostage, I can literally only imagine the joy she will have, being reunited with her loved ones, and in time for the holidays. There is no greater success than for a wrongful detainee to be freed and for them to go home. The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.”

David Whelan also explained that he and his family had been prepped beforehand for the news that Paul would be left behind.

Is a prisoner swap legal?

International law doesn’t prohibit prisoner swaps—and they’re a relatively common strategy among nations in conflict. In fact, Russian president Vladimir Putin, who arrested Griner around the same time that he launched his attack against Ukraine, may have intended to use her for the exact kind of leverage that eventually secured Bout’s release.

(featured image: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

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Julia Glassman (she/her) lives in Los Angeles, where she reads tarot and watches Marvel movies. You can check out more of her writing at, or find her on Twitter at @juliaglassman.