Russia freed Brittney Griner in exchange for arms dealer Viktor Bout in a one-for-one prisoner swap.


Russia freed Brittney Griner in exchange for arms dealer Viktor Bout in a one-for-one prisoner swap. The WNBA star Brittney Griner, who had been imprisoned in Russia for months on drug-related charges, was freed on Thursday as part of a prisoner swap for international arms dealer Viktor Bout, putting an end to the ordeal that had sparked protracted, high-level talks between the United States and the Kremlin to secure her release.

“She is secure. She is flying, “At the White House, President Biden announced the conversation. “She’s headed home. Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones after being wrongfully imprisoned in Russia for months and held there in appalling conditions. She ought to have been there all along. We’ve been working toward this day for a very long time. We never gave up trying to get her out.”

After a U.S. official confirmed the trade, CBS News was the first to publish it. It happened in the United Arab Emirates. According to people familiar with the agreement, Mr. Biden only recently gave final clearance to the exchange agreement negotiated with Moscow in recent weeks.

As of last Thursday, the agreement had been struck, according to five former U.S. officials.

The vice president, secretary of state Antony Blinken, vice president Kamala Harris, and Griner’s wife Cherelle were present when the president claimed to have spoken to Griner on the phone from the Oval Office. Griner was anticipated to undergo a medical examination, as is customary for recently released American prisoners.

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Brittney was excited to return home, Mr. Biden said, adding that he was “happy to be able to say Brittney is in excellent spirits.” She was sentenced to prison after a “show trial in Russia,” which the president disregarded and claimed she “didn’t seek special treatment.”

The president demanded Bout’s freedom and return to Russia in exchange for Griner’s release. The commutation order that Mr. Biden signed reduced Bout’s 25-year federal prison term.

Notably, Paul Whelan, a retired American Marine, is still detained in Russia due to the Griner-for-Bout trade. Whelan has spent almost four years in Russian captivity. The U.S. has deemed the espionage accusations of which he was found guilty to be baseless.

Paul Whelan is still a priority for us, Mr. Biden said on Thursday, adding that we “will never give up” trying to secure his release. According to U.S. officials speaking to reporters, it became clear during negotiations with the Russians that obtaining Bout’s release in exchange for Griner and Whelan was unlikely. One official stated that the U.S. had to decide between bringing home just one American, Brittney Griner, or none.

In a phone interview with CNN on Thursday, Whelan expressed relief that Griner was free but expressed “deep disappointment” that more had not been done to obtain his release, particularly given that the fourth anniversary of his arrest was approaching.

Griner, a 32-year-old star center for the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA, was arrested in February at a Russian airport and later entered a guilty plea to charges related to the discovery of cartridges containing cannabis-derived oil in her luggage. When Griner visited the nation to participate in a Russian basketball league during the WNBA offseason, she claimed she had no intention of bringing the cartridges with her.

Sources claim that the one-for-one exchange took place over the past two weeks after five months of stalled diplomacy and various potential swap arrangements, including a previously unreported offer by the U.S. this past summer to send two prisoners back to Russia in exchange for the two Americans.

Whelan, a former corporate security contractor, was held in a hotel in December 2018 while visiting Moscow for a friend’s wedding. Later, he was given a 16-year prison term by Russian authorities for espionage, which the United States and Whelan both contested. The fourth anniversary of Whelan’s detention by Russia is this month.

The Drug Enforcement Agency apprehended Bout in Thailand after a sting operation in 2008. He was most recently housed at a federal prison in Marion, Illinois. Ten years ago, he started serving a 25-year sentence after being found guilty of planning to kill Americans.

Griner’s detention occurred at the same time Russia’s aggressive invasion of Ukraine began in February, and this conflict has affected all United States relations with the Kremlin. According to the United States, Griner and Whelan were “wrongfully arrested,” and authorities have long held the suspicion that Russia was using the American detainees as bargaining chips.

The second prisoner exchange between the Biden administration and Russia involves Griner’s return for Bout. In April, the United States exchanged Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine who had spent nearly three years in prison in Russia, for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian smuggler found guilty of planning to import cocaine.

The Griner-for-Bout swap was anticipated last Thursday, but CBS News complied with the White House’s request to delay reporting because officials expressed grave concern. 

Officials from the Biden administration warned that leaking information about the swap beforehand would almost certainly result in Russia pulling out of the deal and putting Griner’s safety in jeopardy.