ERIC TUCKER, MATTHEW LEE and ZACKIE MILLER (Associated Press)
WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner headed home Thursday night, freed from a Russian prison in exchange for the U.S. release of notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, the culmination of an eight-month saga of high diplomacy and dashed hopes.
But the US was unable to release another American, Paul Whelan, who has been imprisoned in Russia for almost four years.
The deal, the second in eight months amid tensions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, secured the release of the most prominent Americans detained abroad and achieved a key goal of President Joe Biden. Still, US officials acknowledged the high price.
“She’s safe, she’s on the plane, she’s going home,” Biden said from the White House, where he was accompanied by Griner’s wife Sherrell and administration officials.
Biden’s approval of the release of Booth, a Russian criminal once dubbed the “Death Dealer,” underscored the heightened urgency his administration faced to bring Griner home, especially after her recent conviction on drug charges and her subsequent transfer to a penitentiary. . colony Griner, who also played professional basketball in Russia, was arrested at an airport there after Russian authorities said she was carrying vape canisters containing cannabis oil.
Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, American Baylor University and professional basketball star for the Phoenix Mercury, whose arrest made her the most famous American to be imprisoned abroad. Her status as an openly gay black woman imprisoned in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LBGTQ community has brought racial, gender and social dynamics to her legal saga and brought unprecedented attention to a group of wrongfully detained individuals.
The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed the exchange, saying in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the exchange took place in Abu Dhabi and that Bout had been flown home. Russian media showed Griner getting off a Russian plane in Abu Dhabi, where she was greeted by a US official. Two Russians greeted Bout with hugs.
Russian television later showed Bout exiting the plane on a snow-covered tarmac in Moscow, his mother and wife hugging him and giving him flowers.
Biden spoke by phone with Griner, and she was expected back in the U.S. within 24 hours, Biden said. US officials said she would be offered specialized medical services and counseling.
In recent weeks, both Russian and U.S. officials have expressed cautious optimism after months of tense negotiations, with Biden saying in November that he hoped Russia would seal a deal now that the midterm elections are over. A senior Russian official said last week that a deal is possible by the end of the year.
Still, the fact that the deal was a one-for-one swap came as a surprise, given that US officials had for months expressed their determination to bring home both Griner and Whelan, the Michigan corporate security chief who is in prison in Russia since December 2018 for espionage. charges that his family and the US government have called baseless.
“We haven’t forgotten about Paul Whelan,” Biden said. “We will continue to negotiate in good faith for Paul’s release.”
However, US officials said they saw no immediate path to Whelan’s release, saying Russia had taken a different approach to his case because of the “bogus espionage” charges against him. However, they said they believed the lines of communication with the Russians remained open to negotiate his freedom.
“We didn’t want to lose an opportunity today to secure the release of one of them,” said Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
Whelan’s brother, David, said in a statement that he was “overjoyed” about Griner’s release, but also disappointed for his family. He acknowledged that the White House gave the Whelan family advance notice and said he did not blame officials for making the deal.
“The Biden administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home and make a deal that was possible instead of waiting for one that wasn’t,” he said.
In freeing Bout, the US freed a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel who the Justice Department once described as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers. He was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and extradited to the United States in 2010.
Booth was serving a 25-year sentence on charges of conspiring to sell tens of millions of dollars worth of weapons that US officials say were used against Americans. Biden issued a pardon to free an arms dealer from a federal prison in Illinois to conduct a prisoner exchange.
The deal drew criticism from some prominent Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, his party’s nominee for speaker after the GOP regains control of the chamber in January.
“This is a gift to Vladimir Putin, and it puts American lives at risk,” he said of Bhutto’s release. “To leave Paul Whelan for this is not fair.”
The exchange between the US and Russia took place despite the deterioration of relations between the states caused by Moscow’s war against Ukraine. The White House said that assurances were given to Kiev that the terms were limited to a prisoner exchange and would not affect US support for the defense of Ukraine.
In the summer, the imprisonment of the Americans led to the highest-level known contact between Washington and Moscow — a telephone conversation between Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov — in more than five months.
During the secret talks, Blinken publicly announced in July that the US had made a “substantial offer” to Russia regarding Griner and Whelan. Although he did not specify the terms, people familiar with him said the US had offered Bhutto.
The public announcement drew rebuke from the Russians, who said they preferred to handle such matters privately and risked undermining the US government’s negotiations on this and future deals by making the administration appear desperate. But the statement also made it clear to the public that Biden is doing everything he can to keep the pressure on the Russians.
The release also came after months of back-channel negotiations involving Bill Richardson, the former US ambassador to the UN and a frequent emissary in hostage negotiations, and his top deputy, Mickey Bergman.
After Griner’s arrest at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February, she pleaded guilty in July, but went on trial anyway because a guilty plea in the Russian court system does not automatically end a case.
She admitted in court that she had canisters of cannabis oil, but said she had no criminal intent and that they were in her luggage due to hasty packing.
Before she was sentenced and sentenced on Aug. 4 for what her attorneys said was an impermissible crime, an emotional Griner apologized “for my mistake that I made.” She added: “I hope your ruling does not end my life.”
Her supporters remained largely silent in the weeks following her arrest, but that attitude changed in May when the State Department ruled she was illegally detained. A separate exchange of Marine Corps veteran Trevor Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot convicted in the United States of cocaine-trafficking conspiracy, has raised hopes that more exchanges may follow.
Whelan has been detained in Russia since December 2018. The US government also recognized him as illegally detained. In 2020, he was sentenced to 16 years in prison.
Whelan was not included in the Reid prisoner swap, increasing pressure on the Biden administration to ensure that any deal that brings Griner home also includes him.
Associated Press writers Colin Long and Aamer Madhani contributed to this report.