Russia freed WNBA star Brittney Griner on Thursday in a dramatic high-level prisoner exchange, with the United States releasing notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
The swap, at a time of heightened tensions over Ukraine, achieved a top goal for U.S. President Joe Biden, but carried a heavy price — and left behind an American jailed for nearly four years in Russia, Paul Whelan, who also holds Canadian citizenship.
Biden tweeted a photo from the White House with Griner’s spouse, Cherelle Griner, and then spoke about the development from the White House.
“Pretty soon she’ll back in the arms of her loved ones, and she should’ve been there all along,” said Biden.
Biden said Griner’s “relieved to finally be heading home,” after speaking by phone with her.
Cherelle Griner said she was “overwhelmed with emotions,” expressing gratitude to White House and U.S. State Department officials.
WATCH | Biden praises Griner’s resilience, pans Russian ‘show trial’:
Responding to a shouted reporter question, Biden estimated Griner should be back on U.S. soil in about 24 hours.
Griner’s arrest in February made her the most high-profile American jailed abroad. Her status as an openly gay Black woman, locked up in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LBGTQ community, infused racial, gender and social dynamics into her legal saga and made each development a matter of international importance.
Democrats were quick to praise the release, with Rep. Ruben Gallego calling it a “joyous day” that came about “thanks to the relentless efforts by the Biden administration.”
Russia confirms swap
The Russian Foreign Ministry also confirmed the swap, saying in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the exchange took place in Abu-Dhabi and that Bout has been flown home.
Bout has been imprisoned in the U.S. since a federal court conviction in 2011 on an assortment of charges, including conspiracy to kill American citizens.
The exchange was carried out despite deteriorating relations between the powers. But the imprisonment of Americans produced a rare diplomatic opening, yielding the highest-level known contact between Washington and Moscow — a phone call between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov — in more than five months.
In an extraordinary move during otherwise secret negotiations, Blinken revealed publicly in July that the U.S. had made a “substantial proposal” to Russia for Griner and Whelan. Though he did not specify the terms, people familiar with it said the U.S. had offered Bout.
Such a public overture drew a chiding rebuke from the Russians, who said they preferred to resolve such cases in private, and carried the risk of weakening the U.S. government’s negotiating hand for this and future deals by making the administration appear too desperate.
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.
WATCH l : Whelan’s family ‘in our hearts’: Cherelle Griner: [MEDIA]
She acknowledged in court that she possessed the canisters, but said she had no criminal intent and said their presence in her luggage was due to hasty packing.
Before being sentenced on Aug. 4 and receiving a punishment her lawyers said was out of line for the offence, an emotional Griner apologized “for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them.” She went on: “I hope in your ruling it does not end my life.”
U.S. ‘not giving up’ on Whelan
Whelan has been held in Russia since December 2018. The U.S. government also classified him as wrongfully detained. He was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison.
David Whelan, his brother, released a statement on Thursday expressing elation at Griner’s release
“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.”
But, he said, despite being prepared for the possibility his brother would remain in Russia, “our family is still devastated.”
Biden said he understood the Whelan family’s “mixed emotions.”
“We are not giving up, we will never give up,” he said.
The release also followed months of back channel negotiations involving Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a frequent emissary in hostage talks, and his top deputy Mickey Bergman. The men had made multiple trips abroad in the last year to discuss swap scenarios with Russian contacts.
“Make no mistake about it: this work is not easy, negotiations are always difficult, there are never any guarantees,” said Biden, while not addressing Bout specifically. “But it’s my job as president of the United States to make the hard calls and protect American citizens anywhere in the world.”
Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner.
She is safe.
She is on a plane.
She is on her way home. pic.twitter.com/FmHgfzrcDT
In releasing Bout, the U.S. freed a former Soviet army lieutenant colonel whom the Justice Department once described as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers. 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.
John Bolton, who has held positions in several Republican administrations, including most recently as national security adviser under president Donald Trump, panned the swap as “an American surrender.”