Brittney Griner Is Freed as Part of a Prisoner Swap With Russia

WASHINGTON — Brittney Griner, the American basketball star imprisoned in Russia on drug charges, was released on Thursday after nearly 10 months of captivity in a prisoner swap for Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death.”

President Biden announced her release in a brief statement from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, with Cherelle Griner, Ms. Griner’s wife, smiling by his side. Ms. Griner was expected to land overnight in San Antonio and be examined at a U.S. Army hospital there.

“I spoke with Brittney Griner,” Mr. Biden said. “She’s safe. She’s on a plane. She’s on her way home after months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held in intolerable circumstances.”

He added: “Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones — and she should have been there all along.”

The release of Ms. Griner, who turned 32 while in custody, was a rare bright spot in the confrontation between Mr. Biden and Vladimir V. Putin, the president of Russia, over Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.

Ms. Griner, an All-Star center with the W.N.B.A.’s Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, had been serving a nine-year prison sentence that put her at the center of a fraught geopolitical showdown between Washington and Moscow. In February, she was stopped at an airport near Moscow after customs officials found two vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.

Ms. Griner’s case became an international cause because she was seen as a hostage held by Mr. Putin’s government as Russia was subjected to international sanctions in response to its invasion of Ukraine a week after her arrest. The Biden administration’s efforts to negotiate a prisoner swap stalled for months as she was sent to a penal colony outside Moscow.

Cherelle Griner described her wife’s imprisonment as “the darkest moments” in her life, but thanked Mr. Biden and administration officials for working to secure Ms. Griner’s release.

“Today, I’m just standing here, overwhelmed with emotions,” she said.

The cheer inside the West Wing on Thursday was tempered by the failure to secure the release of Paul Whelan, another American who remained in Russian custody despite months of efforts by U.S. diplomats to include him as part of the deal with the Russians for the exchange with Mr. Bout.

Some Republicans, even as they celebrated Ms. Griner’s release, criticized the president for exchanging her for Mr. Bout, saying the deal will encourage adversaries to take more Americans hostage.

Mr. Whelan, a Marine veteran who later worked as a corporate security executive, was arrested at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 and convicted in June 2020 on espionage charges that the U.S. government says were manufactured.

In an email to supporters, David Whelan, Mr. Whelan’s brother, said “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.” But he added that “it’s clear the U.S. government needs to be more assertive.”

“If bad actors like Russia are going to grab innocent Americans, the U.S. needs a swifter, more direct response, and to be prepared in advance,” David Whelan said.

A senior White House official said Thursday that Russians made it clear within the last several weeks that the choice for Mr. Biden would be whether to approve a one-for-one swap — Ms. Griner for Mr. Bout — and that they were unwilling to consider releasing Mr. Whelan.

The official, who asked not to be named to discuss the negotiations, said the president made “the difficult decision” to proceed.

In his remarks at the White House, Mr. Biden pledged to continue working to free Mr. Whelan.

“Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s,” he said. “And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”

Paul Whelan in Moscow in 2020.Credit…Sofia Sandurskaya/Moscow News Agency, via Associated Press

Throughout the summer, American officials were privately angry that Russians refused to discuss the possibility of a swap. In July, Mr. Biden and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken went public with those frustrations, in a move that a senior administration official said Thursday was an attempt to pressure Russia to engage more seriously on a deal.

The Russians refused to include Mr. Whelan in the swap because they view him as a spy whose supposed offenses are not equivalent to the others under discussion. But they have not identified anyone else as an appropriate swap for Mr. Whelan, according to Ryan Fayhee, a lawyer representing the Whelan family, which has denied that he was a spy.

“The Russians don’t appear to be expressing what it is — either what or who they want,” he said. A former counterespionage official, Mr. Fayhee said he was not aware of a similarly situated Russian in American custody who could be traded. “It’s just really not clear what the resolution is.”

That presented the administration with a brutal choice: agree to the deal for Ms. Griner and leave Mr. Whelan in the prison, or hold out for a deal that includes both of them with no guarantee that Russians would ever agree.

By Thursday, Dec. 1, when Mr. Biden hosted Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, for a state dinner at the White House, the president had decided to accept the deal, and preparations for the swap began in earnest the next day.

That set in motion a set of highly choreographed actions in both Russia and the United States, all done with strict secrecy.

Two days ago, Russians moved Ms. Griner from the penal colony to Moscow, in preparation for a possible swap, according to a senior White House official. On Thursday morning, Russians put Ms. Griner on a plane and flew her to an airport in the United Arab Emirates, whose government had agreed to serve as the location for the swap.

In a video posted by the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti, Ms. Griner is shown boarding a plane in the snow with two duffel bags. Once aboard and in her seat, she is asked by an unidentified person, “What’s your mood?”

She replies, “Happy.”

Late on Wednesday afternoon, American officials put Mr. Bout on a plane headed to the U.A.E. Another video released by Russia’s state media shows the moment of the swap. Ms. Griner, wearing a red jacket and trousers, walks with three men in suits toward another man and Mr. Bout, who is clutching a brown envelope and holding a coat over one arm.

One man shakes Mr. Bout’s hand and embraces him, and then a second man also shakes his hand. Ms. Griner then veers off toward another group of men, including what appears to be an U.A.E. official clad in flowing robes, as they shake her hand.

Once American officials confirmed that Ms. Griner was ready to return to the United States, the president signed a conditional grant of clemency to Mr. Bout, who was captured in Bangkok in 2008, extradited to the United States in 2010 and sentenced in 2012 to 25 years in prison.

Around the time that Mr. Bout took off, the administration sent an official to Chappaquiddick, Mass., to let Elizabeth Whalen, his sister, know what was about to happen, a step they did not take when the government agreed to a similar swap in April for Trevor Reed, an ailing U.S. Marine veteran held for two years on what his family considered to be bogus charges of assault.

Mr. Biden and Mr. Blinken both followed up with calls to Ms. Whelan on Thursday.

Officials also invited Cherelle Griner to the White House on Thursday morning, telling her that she would be meeting with Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser. Instead, she was led into the Oval Office where she joined a call to her wife with Mr. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

A senior administration official said that considering what she had been through in the last 10 months, Brittney Griner was “in an extremely upbeat mood, all smiles and extremely grateful” to those who helped bring her home.

Ms. Griner had been described by one of her lawyers this fall as struggling emotionally and increasingly worried that she would not be freed.She slept on a specially elongated bed to accommodate her 6-foot-9 frame.

The trade for Mr. Bout gave Moscow back one of the most notorious arms dealers of modern times, a man who earned the nickname “Merchant of Death” as he evaded capture for years. He was convicted in 2011 by a New York jury on four counts that included conspiring to kill American citizens.

Viktor Bout in Bangkok in 2010.Credit…Apichart Weerawong/Associated Press

The swap may have been an effort by Mr. Putin’s government to divert attention from Russia’s flailing war efforts in Ukraine. Russia has faced a series of setbacks on the battlefield in Ukraine and in recent days Ukrainian forces have struck military bases deep inside Russian territory with long-range drones.

Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, said in a statement that the release of Ms. Griner “shouldn’t have come at the cost of releasing one of the world’s worst arms dealers and creating a dangerous precedent for our enemies: detain Americans and Democrats will agree to set your worst killers free.”

While administration officials repeatedly committed to continue working for Mr. Whelan’s release, they made no mention until asked of Marc Fogel, an American teacher who previously worked for the United States Embassy in Moscow and was sentenced this year to 14 years in a Russian prison for drug smuggling.

His family has said that he had been carrying less than 20 grams of marijuana, which they said had been recommended to him by a doctor to help treat a debilitating spinal condition. The White House said on Thursday that it could not discuss his case.

The negotiations for Ms. Griner’s release started and stopped repeatedly over the last few months and several foreign governments intervened on the Americans’ behalf. Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto leader of the United Arab Emirates, raised the matter during a meeting with Mr. Putin in October, according to an official briefed on the session. The U.A.E. has been trying to arrange prisoner swaps between the Russians and Ukrainians.

The Saudi government, whose relationship with Mr. Biden has been strained, attempted to take credit on Thursday, issuing a joint statement with the U.A.E. asserting that “mediation efforts led by” Crown Prince Mohammed and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the prime minister of Saudi Arabia, “resulted in the release and exchange.”

American officials deemed that a brazen overstatement. Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said “there was no mediation involved” and “the only countries that negotiated this deal were the United States and Russia.”

Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting from Kyiv.

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