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'Might be a hopeful sign going into 2023' | Maryville College professor talks Brittney Griner prisoner swap

Mark O'Gorman said that the prisoner swap could be a sign President Vladimir Putin is still willing to talk despite international tension over the war in Ukraine.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Russia freed WNBA player Brittney Griner on Thursday as part of a prisoner exchange. The U.S. released a Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, and was pushing for the release of another American — Paul Whelan, a former Marine and businessman.

"In terms of future deals, this is helpful because it shows that Russia and the United States and third-party allies in Russia can diplomatically negotiate an issue," said Mark O'Gorman, a professor of political science at Maryville College. "Even though this is certainly important for the people involved, this suggests that they can have deeper negotiations."

Dr. O'Gorman said that these kinds of smaller-scale diplomatic successes of dialogue might eventually lead to larger successes headed into 2023. Eventually, said enough smaller successes could lead to an end of the war in Ukraine.

He also said there was a social aspect to the prisoner exchange. Griner is a member of the LGBTQ community and a Black woman who was held prisoner in Russia. The country is internationally notorious for its treatment of the LGBTQ community.

In July, the country expanded a law that has been used to stop LGBTQ pride marches and detain activists. Human rights activists said the law was used to intimidate the LGBTQ community in Russia.

"I think this issue also has a social layer," said O'Gorman. "It's a community that's always been marginalized, and just to have that release occur, I think that community amplifies the importance of having Griner released, and so I think that's good."

He said he believed that the prisoner exchange was likely orchestrated with the help of Saudi Arabian officials and the United Arab Emirates. He also said that despite some people's perception that it could be an unfair trade for the U.S., leaders were guaranteeing the U.S. received something in exchange for Bout's inevitable release from prison.

"He was going to be released someday, and so what we know now is that we can get something from him in exchange for his leaving prison sometime in the future," he said. "We didn't know when that would be. So, we know we're getting something from a national security point of view."

Bout was 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 was arrested at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport in February when customs officials said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. She pleaded guilty in July, though still faced trial because admitting guilt in Russia's judicial system does not automatically end a case.


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