Russia freed WNBA star Brittney Griner on Thursday in a dramatic prisoner exchange, as the U.S. released notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout but failed to win freedom for another American, Paul Whelan, who has been jailed for nearly four years.
The swap, at a time of heightened tensions over Ukraine, achieved a top goal for President Joe Biden but carried a heavy price.
“She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home,” Biden said from the White House, where he was accompanied by Griner’s wife, Cherelle, and administration officials.
The deal, the second such exchange in eight months with Russia, procured the release of the most prominent American detained abroad.
Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist whose months long imprisonment on drug charges brought unprecedented attention to the population of wrongful detainees.
Biden’s authorisation to release a Russian felon once nicknamed “the Merchant of Death” underscored the escalating pressure that his administration faced to get Griner home, particularly after the recent resolution of her criminal case and her subsequent transfer to a penal colony.
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 Russian and US officials had conveyed cautious optimism in recent weeks after months of strained negotiations, with Biden saying in November that he was hopeful that Russia would engage in a deal now that the midterm elections were completed.
A top Russian official said last week that a deal was possible before year’s end.
Even so, the fact that the deal was a one-for-one swap was a surprise given that the U.S. officials had for months expressed their determination to bring home both Griner and Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive jailed in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the U.S. government has said are baseless.
“We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan,” Biden said. “We will keep negotiating in good faith for Paul’s release.” Whelan’s brother David said in a statement he was “so glad” for Griner’s release but also disappointed for his family.
He credited the White House with giving the Whelan family advance notice and said he did not fault officials for making the deal.
“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,” he said.
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, whose exploits inspired a Hollywood movie, was serving a 25-year sentence on charges that he conspired to sell tens of millions of dollars in weapons that US officials said were to be used against Americans.
The Biden administration was ultimately willing to exchange Bout if it meant Griner’s freedom.
The detention of one of the greatest players in WNBA history contributed to a swirl of unprecedented public attention for an individual detainee case — not to mention intense pressure on the White House.
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.
Her case not only brought unprecedented publicity to the dozens of Americans wrongfully detained by foreign governments, but it also emerged as a major inflection point in US-Russia diplomacy at a time of deteriorating relations prompted by Moscow’s war against Ukraine.
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 US had made a “substantial proposal” to Russia for Griner and Whelan.
Though he did not specify the terms, people familiar with it said the US 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 US government’s negotiating hand for this and future deals by making the administration appear too desperate.
But the announcement was also meant to communicate to the public that Biden was doing what he could and to ensure pressure on the Russians.
Besides the efforts of US officials, the release also followed months of back channel negotiations involving Bill Richardson, the former US ambassador to the United Nations and a frequent emissary in hostage talks, and his top deputy, Mickey Bergman.
Griner was arrested at the 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.
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 August 4 and receiving a punishment her lawyers said was out of line for the offense, an emotional Griner apologised “for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them.” She added: “I hope in your ruling it does not end my life.” Her supporters had largely stayed quiet for weeks after her arrest, but that approach changed in May once the State Department designated her as unlawfully detained.
A separate trade, Marine veteran Trevor Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot convicted in the US in a cocaine trafficking conspiracy, spurred hope that additional such exchanges could be in the works.
Whelan has been held in Russia since December 2018. The US government also classified him as wrongfully detained. He was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison.
Whelan was not included in the Reed prisoner swap, escalating pressure on the Biden administration to ensure that any deal that brought home Griner also included him.
Who is Brittney Griner?
Brittney Griner is a double Olympic champion and seven-time All-Star player in the U.S. Women's National Basketball Association (WBNA).
Standing 206 cm (6 feet 9 inches) tall, the high-scoring Texan center was selected first overall by the Phoenix Mercury in the 2013 WBNA draft.
Known as "BG" to basketball fans, she has played for UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia during the WNBA winter off-season since 2014. The club has drawn other top U.S. basketball players including Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Candace Parker.
At the time of her arrest, she was on her way to Ekaterinburg, 1,400 km (870 miles) east of Moscow, to rejoin her club for the playoffs after spending time at home in the United States.
Why was Griner detained?
Griner was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport on Feb. 17 with vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage, exactly a week before Russia took relations with the West to their lowest level in decades by invading Ukraine.
The player had a prescription in the United States for medical marijuana to relieve the pain from chronic injuries.
The drug has fewer side effects than some painkillers and is a common treatment for athletes in places where it is legal. In Russia, however, marijuana is illegal for both medicinal and recreational purposes.
What does Brittney Griner say?
Griner pleaded guilty to the charges of possessing and smuggling illegal drugs but insisted she had made an "honest mistake" and had not intended to break Russian law.
She testified that she did not understand how the cartridges had ended up in her luggage and speculated that she could have packed them inadvertently as she rushed to make her flight.
"I had no intent, I did not conspire or plan to commit this crime," she told the court. "I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that is far from this courtroom."
At her unsuccessful appeal, she said the amount of marijuana in her luggage had been only slightly above that considered legally insignificant.
Her lawyers said that, in any event, the sentence of nine years in a penal colony was grossly disproportionate.