Russia released WNBA star Brittney Griner on Thursday in a dramatic high-level prisoner exchange that saw the US free notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, US and Russian officials said. The trade, at a time of heightened tensions over Ukraine, achieved a top goal for US President Joe Biden, but came at a high price — and left an American imprisoned in Russia for nearly four years.
The deal, the second such exchange with Russia in eight months, secured the release of the most prominent American held abroad. Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist whose months of imprisonment on drug charges drew unprecedented attention to the unjust inmate population.
Biden’s permission to release a Russian felon once nicknamed “the merchant of death” underlined the mounting pressure his administration faced to get Griner home, especially after the recent settlement of her criminal case and her subsequent transfer to a penal colony.
The trade was confirmed by US officials with direct knowledge of the negotiations who were not authorized to discuss the deal publicly before a White House announcement and spoke on condition of anonymity. Biden spoke to Griner on the phone Thursday while her wife, Cherelle, was in the Oval Office. The president was scheduled to address reporters later in the morning.
“A moment ago I spoke to Brittney Griner. She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home,” Biden tweeted.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also confirmed the exchange, saying in a statement released by Russian news agencies that the exchange took place in Abu-Dhabi and that Bout flew home.
Russian and US officials had expressed cautious optimism in recent weeks after months of tense negotiations, with Biden saying in November that he hoped Russia would strike a deal now that the midterm elections had concluded. A top Russian official said last week that a deal was possible before the end of the year.
Still, the fact that the deal was a one-for-one swap came as a surprise, given that U.S. officials had for months expressed their determination to bring home both Griner and Paul Whelan, a Canadian-born Michigan corporate security executive imprisoned in Russia. to get. since December 2018 on allegations of espionage that his family and the U.S. government say are unfounded.
By releasing Bout, the US 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 worth of weapons that U.S. officials said would 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 on an individual inmate case — not to mention intense pressure on the White House.
Griner’s arrest in February made her the most high-profile American imprisoned abroad. Her status as an openly gay black woman locked in a country where authorities are hostile to the LBGTQ2S+ community brought racial, gender and social dynamics to her legal narrative and made any development a matter of international concern.
Her case not only generated unprecedented publicity among the dozens of Americans wrongfully detained by foreign governments, but also emerged as a major turning point in U.S.-Russian diplomacy at a time of deteriorating relations following the war of Moscow vs Ukraine.
The exchange took place despite deteriorating relations between the powers. But the capture of Americans sparked a rare diplomatic opening, producing the highest 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 publicly revealed in July that the US had made a “substantial proposal” to Russia for Griner and Whelan. Although he did not specify the terms, people familiar with it said the US had offered Bout.
Such a public overture drew rebuke from the Russians, who said they preferred to resolve such matters privately, and risked weakening the US government’s negotiating position for this and future deals by making the administration appear too desperate. But the announcement was also meant to signal to the public that Biden was doing what he could and to put pressure on the Russians.
In addition to the efforts of US officials, the release also followed months of backchannel negotiations with Bill Richardson, the former US ambassador to the United Nations and a frequent emissary in hostage talks, and his deputy Mickey Bergman. The men had made several trips abroad in the past year to discuss exchange scenarios with Russian contacts.
Griner was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport in February when customs officials said they found cannabis oil vape canisters in her luggage. She pleaded guilty in July, though she still had to face trial because in the Russian court system, pleading guilty does not automatically end a case.
She admitted in court that she owned the buses but said she had no criminal intent and said their presence in her luggage was due to hasty packing.
Before she was sentenced on August 4 and given a sentence that her lawyers said was inappropriate for the offense, an emotional Griner apologized “for my mistake I made and the embarrassment I caused them.” She added, “I hope your statement doesn’t end my life.”
Her supporters had remained largely silent for weeks after her arrest, but that approach changed in May when the State Department labeled her unlawfully detained. A separate transaction, Navy veteran Trevor Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot convicted in the US of a cocaine trafficking conspiracy, raised hopes that more such exchanges could be in the works.
Whelan has been detained in Russia since December 2018. The US government also classified him as unjustly detained. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020.
Whelan was not involved in Reed’s prisoner exchange, which increased pressure on the Biden administration to ensure that whatever deal Griner brought home included him.
Associated Press writers Colleen Long and Aamer Madhani contributed to this report