According to a senior administration official, WNBA star Brittney Griner was released from a Russian penal colony on Thursday after the Biden administration negotiated her release in exchange for an arms dealer.
President Joe Biden approved the deal, which took place in the United Arab Emirates, despite the fact that it meant leaving behind Paul Whelan, an American corporate security executive who is still imprisoned in Russia.
“She is safe, she is on a plane, she is on her way home,” Biden said from the White House on Thursday. “She will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones and she should have been there all along.”
“I’m proud that today we have made one more family whole,” Biden said, adding that he will keep working to free Whelan. “We will continue to bargain for Paul’s release. I promise you that.”
According to a senior administration official, Brittney Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, was in the Oval Office with Biden and the two were able to speak with her by phone.
Cherelle Griner, who spoke after Biden, expressed her “sincere gratitude” to Biden and several other officials she named for their work.
Griner will be flown to a medical facility in San Antonio for treatment, according to a senior administration official. According to a senior administration official, Cherelle Griner will meet her there.
The exchange is one of the most high-profile prisoner swaps between Moscow and Washington since the Cold War, with the Kremlin celebrating the return of Viktor Bout, whom Russian President Vladimir Putin has long sought — and who had served 11 years of a 25-year sentence in the US.
Griner’s return to the United States will bring to a close a months-long saga that began in February, when she was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport after Russian authorities claimed they discovered cannabis-infused vape canisters in her luggage. She was later imprisoned on drug-related charges.
After a trial that highlighted frayed relations amid Russia’s war in Ukraine, the 32-year-old Phoenix Mercury player was the subject of lengthy and frequently public negotiations between the two countries. Both Griner and Whelan had been sought out by Biden’s administration.
“I’m telling you, I’m determined to get her home, and get her home safely — along with others, I might add,” Biden said on Nov. 9.
Griner’s release was first reported by CBS.
Whelan is serving a 16-year prison sentence for espionage, which the US has denied. According to people familiar with the negotiations for his release, the Russians refused to release Whelan without a Russian spy in exchange. The US maintains that it has no Russian spies in its custody and thus no one to trade in order to meet the Kremlin’s demand.
Griner’s release comes after she began serving a nine-year sentence at a Russian penal colony more than 200 miles east of Moscow last month.
Griner pleaded guilty but claimed she had no criminal intent during her July trial. Griner claimed that the canisters, which she had been prescribed to treat chronic pain, were packed inadvertently as she rushed to catch her flight.
As her trial came to a close in early August, it was revealed that the US had put a prisoner swap offer on the table for Moscow to consider. Russia called for “quiet diplomacy,” but said after her conviction that it was willing to negotiate a deal.
According to NBC News, the US proposed a prisoner exchange with Russia in July in exchange for the release of Griner and Whelan, who have been detained since 2018. The US would have released Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death” because he was one of the world’s largest illicit arms dealers, according to two sources familiar with the matter at the time.
Bout was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison in 2012 after being convicted of selling arms to Colombian rebels that were intended to kill Americans, according to prosecutors. Over the last decade, the Kremlin has been demanding his release, claiming that he was unfairly targeted.
The Washington-Moscow swap is the most visible diplomatic engagement between the two countries since the United States and its allies firmly supported Kyiv and condemned the Kremlin for starting the war against its neighbor in February.
The Biden administration has been under intense pressure to assist in bringing the 6-foot-9 Houston native home. Griner’s teammates, family, and friends, as well as a number of celebrities in the United States, lobbied for her return.
Griner’s release is the second publicly known prisoner swap between the United States and Russia since the conflict in Ukraine began. Trevor Reed, an American, was released in April after nearly three years in a Russian prison. In exchange for the former Marine, Biden commuted the sentence of Konstantin Yaroshenko, a convicted Russian drug trafficker serving time in Connecticut who was sentenced to 20 years in prison in the United States in 2010.
With the US and its Western allies facing the realities of a new Cold War with Russia in the aftermath of the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, the high-stakes trade will evoke memories of Soviet-era spies trades.
American pilot Francis Gary Powers, whose U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union, was involved in one of the most well-known Cold War swaps. In 1962, he was exchanged for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel on a foggy bridge connecting West Berlin and East Germany.
The largest US-Russian spy swap since the Cold War occurred in 2010, when ten Russian agents, including Anna Chapman, were swapped for four other Russians accused of spying for the West, including Sergei Skripal, who was later poisoned with a nerve agent in the UK. The poisoning was blamed on Moscow by the British government.