Biden Announces Release of Brittney Griner in Prisoner Swap for Convicted Arms Dealer

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The US was obliged to concede that it would either get Griner or nothing. Instead, Biden felt compelled to make the “difficult decision,” the official asserted.

President Joe Biden meets Cherelle Griner about the release of Brittney Griner in the Oval Office of the White House on December 8, 2022 in Washington, DC.. [Adam Schultz/ The White House/Getty Images]

Griner release a prisoner swap deal

President Joe Biden said Thursday that WNBA star Brittney Griner had been released from Russian custody. Griner was released as part of a prisoner swap involving Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer.

Paul Whelan, the other American whose imprisonment the State Department has deemed illegal, was not included in the exchange.

“She’s safe, on a plane, and on her way home,” Biden and Griner’s wife, Cherelle, said at the White House on Thursday morning. Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones after months of being wrongfully arrested in Russia and held in deplorable conditions; she should have been there the entire time.

While expressing that Whelan’s family “must have such mixed emotions today,” Biden acknowledged that Griner’s release was taking place while Whelan remained in prison.

Biden said it was not a decision about which American to bring home. Unfortunately, Russian officials treat Paul’s situation differently than Brittney’s for utterly spurious reasons. And, while we have yet to secure Paul’s release, we will not give up. We will never, ever give up.

According to a US official, the WNBA’s first game will be held in San Antonio, Texas.

The Russian government’s war in Ukraine and the WNBA’s arrest in February triggered a diplomatic saga between the US and the Kremlin. While the US implemented harsh sanctions to fight the Ukraine war, US diplomats maintained open communication channels with Moscow over prisoner negotiations to secure the release of both Griner and Whelan.

While thanking the officials of his administration who were involved, Biden stated that bringing Griner home needed “painstaking and tough negotiations.”

“We’ve fought extremely hard for this day for a very long time, and we never gave up on her release,” he said.

According to senior Biden administration officials, the prisoner swap occurred on Thursday in Abu Dhabi. In a joint statement from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the Gulf nations purportedly had a role in mediating the exchange between the United States and Russia.

Paul Whelan, a former US marine accused of espionage and arrested in Russia in December 2018, stands inside a defendants’ cage as he waits to hear his verdict in Moscow on June 15, 2020. [KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images]

Close dialog

When asked when Griner would come home after his statements, Biden said, “Within the next 24 hours,” and when asked what he would say to Whelan’s family, he said, “We’re speaking to them.”

Cherelle Griner expressed gratitude to the administration for assisting in obtaining her wife’s release, saying she was “overwhelmed with emotions.”

She stated that she and Brittney “will remain devoted to bringing every American home, including Paul, whose family is in our hearts tonight.”

The Griner family agreed in a statement released late on Thursday.

“We truly thank you all for the kind words, thoughts, and prayers, especially Paul and the Whelan family, who have been kind with their support for Brittney and our family during what we know is a sad time,” the family said in a statement. “We pray for Paul and the speedy and safe release of all Americans who have been unlawfully imprisoned.”

In an exclusive phone interview with CNN, Whelan expressed disappointment that the Biden administration had not done more to secure Griner’s release from the Russian penal colony where he is being held. Griner’s release pleased Whelan, but he claimed that he had been “led to believe that things were moving in the right part, that governments were discussing, and that something would happen very soon.”

I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here, he said.

According to a senior administration official who spoke to CNN on Thursday, the Biden administration is preparing “new kinds of approaches” to make to the Russians to secure Whelan’s release.

The official admitted that the US needed to deliver “something more, something different” to the Russians than it has offered. However, it did not rule out the notion of offering a Russian spy held in US custody in a potential prisoner swap.

“We have let the Russians know that we are at least willing to talk about what we have available and what we can deliver,” the official said. It would be someone in our custody.

Republicans chastised the Biden administration for returning a dangerous prisoner to Russia in exchange for Griner while failing to secure the release of Whelan.

“This is a gift to Vladimir Putin, and it’s endangering American lives,” House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted. “It is unconscionable to leave Paul Whelan behind for this.”

Griner, who has played off-season hoops for a Russian women’s basketball team for years, has been held without bond since her arrest on drug smuggling charges in a Moscow-area airport in February. Despite admitting that she had packed the cannabis oil by accident, she was sentenced to 9 years in early August and then transferred to a correctional colony in the Mordovia republic in mid-November following losing her appeal.

Brittney Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medallist and WNBA champion, was detained at Moscow airport in February on charges of carrying in her luggage vape cartridges with cannabis oil, which could carry a 10-year prison sentence. [KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images]

The “Brittney or nothing” situation.

According to senior US administration officials, months of “tough” negotiations with the Russians led to Thursday’s prisoner swap. It wasn’t until recently that it became evident that there was a window of opportunity in securing the release of the American basketball player.

According to the officials, removing Griner from the penal colony where she was serving a lengthy sentence began once the final agreement was reached over the preceding 48 hours.

Even while it was a big step forward, the opening was “painful,” according to the officials: in exchange for a convicted arms dealer, Russia would only agree to release Griner, leaving Whelan, another American, behind. In multiple meetings during the previous weeks and months, Russian officials made it clear that releasing Bout was the only way they would release Griner.

According to an official familiar with the situation, Biden gave final approval for the prisoner deal that resulted in Brittney’s release the previous week.

According to a US official, Biden received briefings all morning as he awaited that the WNBA star was back in US custody. According to another official, Biden then spoke with Griner from the Oval Office, where Vice President Kamala Harris, Cherelle Griner, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken were also present.

According to a US official, the Russians recently stated that they would only negotiate for Griner and not for Whelan since, in Russia’s terms, their cases have been handled differently depending on what each person has been accused of.

Even when Russia made it clear that only Griner was acceptable, the Biden administration maintained that Whelan should be released as part of this accord.

When it became apparent that Russia would reject the request for Whelan, the US was forced to accept it.

“It was either get Brittney or nothing,” the US official stated.

According to the official, Biden felt obligated to make the “difficult decision.”

Griner was transferred from the correctional colony to Moscow in the last 48 hours and flew to the United Arab Emirates on Thursday morning, where she was greeted on the tarmac by US officials, including Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage problems, who said she was “in a delighted mood,” “all smiles,” and “grateful.”

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