WASHINGTON – Five months after Brittney Griner told President Joe Biden she was terrified she would spend the rest of her life behind bars in Russia, the WNBA star headed back to the United States.
“She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home,” Biden announced from the White House Thursday.
Griner’s release followed months of what the White House called “painstaking, extraordinary” negotiations between the Biden administration and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime for the safe return of the two-time Olympic gold medalist and seven-time WNBA All-Star.
Griner had been in custody in Russia since February when she was arrested at an airport near Moscow while returning to play for her Russian professional basketball team, UMMC Ekaterinburg. She was charged with possessing cannabis oil.
The deal – a one-for-one swap of Griner and notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, held in a U.S. prison since 2012 – was secured “in recent days,” according to a senior Biden administration official who discussed the talks on the condition of anonymity.
In the last 48 hours, Griner was transported from a Russian penal colony where she had been held captive to Moscow in preparation for her return to the U.S.
On Thursday, Griner was taken to the United Arab Emirates, where the exchange for Bout took place.
There, from the tarmac at the Abu Dhabi airport, Griner got a call from Biden and her wife Cherelle Griner, who relayed the news. Brittney Griner is in “good health” and in an “extremely upbeat mood, all smiles and extremely grateful,” the official said.
“Today, my family is whole,” a beaming Cherelle Griner said as she appeared with Biden at the White House, grasping the president’s hand and declaring herself overwhelmed with emotion.
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Cherelle Griner said she realizes how much work went into her wife’s release.
U.S. officials weren’t allowed to meet with Griner until March 23.
After classifying Griner as “wrongfully detained” in May, her case was transferred to the State Department office in charge of hostage affairs.
“I’m terrified I might be here forever,” Brittney Griner wrote in a handwritten note to Biden in July.
Mid-November, Biden said he was hopeful that, with the midterm elections over, Putin would be more willing to discuss a prisoner exchange.
The U.S. first proposed the swap for Bout, a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel nicknamed the “Merchant of Death,” over the summer. Bout was scheduled for release from prison in 2029.
“The Russians made clear that the only route to securing Britney’s return was the release of a Russian national, Viktor Bout,” the official said.
Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who has helped in previous hostage negotiations, traveled to Moscow “numerous times” on behalf of Griner, he said in an emailed statement.
Richardson said he met with Russian “counterparts, conduits” and officials while working closely with Griner’s family, including her wife and father.
Others who helped, according to Richardson, included Ara Abramyan, an Armenian-born businessman with ties to the region, and Vitaly Pruss, whose LinkedIn profile indicates he works in international finance and speaks Russian.
It was not immediately clear what specific roles Abramyan and Pruss played in Griner’s release.
Paul Whelan’s release was not an option White House says
Not part of the deal is the release of another detained American, former U.S. marine Paul Whelan, who the Biden administration has worked to bring home from Russia alongside Griner. Whelan, detained in Russia in 2018, is serving a 16-year sentence on espionage charges.
The White House said Russia made clear in recent weeks it was unwilling to part with Whelan. Although the Biden administration negotiated for the return of Whelan “through every step of the process,” the senior administration official said, Russia resisted “due to the sham nature of the espionage charges.”
“We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan, who’s been unjustly detained in Russia for years. This was not a choice of which American to bring home,” Biden said Thursday morning, celebrating the return of Griner. “Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s.”
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre drove this point home during Thursday’s press briefing: “It was a choice between bringing home one American or bringing home none.”
The negotiations were conducted amid the heightened tension between the U.S. and Moscow over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But Matthew Schmidt, an expert on strategic analysis in foreign affairs at the University of New Haven, said Russia’s military failings in Ukraine were likely a motivation for Putin to make a trade.
“Her release gives Putin an opening to appear magnanimous (even though he exchanged her for a notorious arms trafficker) and, this is crucial, back in control of a war that he’s not been able to steer his direction since February,” Schmidt said in an emailed comment.
Republican leader calls prisoner swap ‘a gift to Vladimir Putin’
Texas U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, warned that trading Bout for Griner “will only embolden Vladimir Putin to continue his evil practice of taking innocent Americans hostage for use as political pawns.
“This is a gift to Vladimir Putin, and it endangers American lives,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., tweeted. “Leaving Paul Whelan behind for this is unconscionable.”
Jean-Pierre said the swap was “not a decision that the president made lightly” when asked about the administration’s risk assessment with releasing Bout. She declined to disclose details about the intelligence community’s assessment.
“What I can say is that the president will continue to be vigilant about our national security and he will remain – we will remain – to act swiftly to protect it,” she said.
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The UAE and Saudi Araba, two U.S. allies, in a joint statement took credit for “mediation” efforts for the prisoner exchange. The crown prince’s involvement comes amid growing tension in U.S.-Saudi relations after the OPEC+ alliance led by Saudi Arabia cut oil production despite the Biden administration’s objections.
Jean-Pierre said the Griner negotiations were “between the U.S. government and Russia” only but thanked the UAE for facilitating the use of its territory for the prisoner transfer.
“We are also grateful to other countries, including Saudi Arabia, that raised the issue of our wrongfully detained Americans with the Russian government,” she said.
Jean-Pierre, the first Black woman and openly gay White House press secretary, also added a “personal note” about Griner’s release.
“Brittany is more than an athlete, more than an Olympic champion,” she said. “She is an important role model and inspiration to millions of Americans, particularly the LGBTQI plus Americans and women of color.”
“She should never,” Jean-Pierre added, “have been detained by Russia.”
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