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Brittney Griner freed in swap for Russian ‘Merchant of Death’

The deal left in Russian custody another American prisoner, Paul Whelan, who U.S. officials had hoped to free as well in exchange for arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport in February and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, was freed on Thursday in a prisoner exchange for Russian Viktor Bout. (Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters)
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The United States and Russia conducted a high-profile prisoner exchange on Thursday, trading a convicted Russian arms dealer for American basketball star Brittney Griner and ending months of tense negotiations between two nations locked in a dangerous standoff over the war in Ukraine.

U.S. and Russian officials said that Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who was arrested outside Moscow in February for carrying a small amount of cannabis oil, was swapped for Viktor Bout, the “Merchant of Death” serving a 25-year sentence in a federal prison for weapons trafficking and conspiracy. The exchange occurred on an airport tarmac in the United Arab Emirates, with Griner and Bout, each escorted by plainclothes security personnel, passing within a few feet of one another.

Thursday’s trade marked a rare joint effort at a time of intense strain and recrimination between the world’s two largest nuclear powers, showing the possibility of continued diplomacy as the world grapples with the Ukraine conflict’s punishing toll. It also carried political risk for President Biden, who faced immediate critiques for a deal involving prisoners convicted of dramatically disparate offenses.

The deal left in Russian custody another American prisoner who U.S. officials had hoped — but ultimately were unable — to free as well in exchange for Bout. Like Griner, American officials consider U.S. Marine veteran Paul Whelan, who is serving a 16-year sentence on espionage charges, wrongfully detained.

President Biden spoke alongside Vice President Harris and Brittney Griner’s wife, Cherelle, on Dec. 8, announcing Russia had freed WNBA star in a prisoner swap. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Biden, speaking at the White House alongside Griner’s wife Cherelle, Vice President Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, said the deal was the result of a “painstaking and intense” process.

“After months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances, Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones. And she should have been there all along,” Biden said.

Cherelle Griner voiced “sincere gratitude” that her wife, whose appeal of her more than nine-year sentence was rejected in October, was on her way home. She also acknowledged the difficulties still facing the Whelan family.

“B.G. and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today,” she said. “We do understand that there are still people out here who are enduring what I endured the last nine months of missing tremendously their loved ones.”

The Russian news agency Interfax reported on Thursday afternoon Washington time that Bout had arrived in Moscow. Griner flew to the United States with a layover in Shannon, Ireland, and was expected to arrive in Texas on Thursday night. She’ll receive medical attention at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, said a senior defense official familiar with the matter.

Before her arrest, Griner, who throughout her captivity remained on the payroll of her WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury, played with a Russian team during the WNBA’s offseason. In a tweet, the Mercury said: “No more days. She’s coming home.”

The exchange illustrates how the United States and Russia remain capable of diplomatic transactions when both countries see the need, despite the fallout between Washington and Moscow over the war in Ukraine and the U.S.-led campaign of economic sanctions and political isolation to punish the Kremlin for its unprovoked aggression. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the exchange would not soften U.S. opposition to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. The United States is the largest provider of weaponry to Kyiv.

It’s not going to change our commitment to the Ukrainian people, to make sure that they are able to fight against the aggression that they are dealing with Russia, to fight for their freedom, to fight for their democracy,” she said. “That does not change.”

Since President Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, shortly after Griner’s arrest, U.S. ties with Moscow have reached their lowest level in decades. As Russia faces successive rounds of punishing sanctions and U.S.-supplied weapons take out its soldiers in Ukraine, Putin and his aides have repeatedly made reference to Russia’s ability to use its nuclear arsenal, the world’s largest, should it deem necessary. The rhetoric has left much of Europe on edge while underscoring how bleak the outlook remains for a negotiated peace settlement.

The Ukraine standoff has resulted in the halt of other, unrelated areas of U.S.-Russian cooperation. Earlier this month, for instance, Moscow postponed scheduled nuclear arms control talks, citing U.S. support for the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The release of Bout, a former military translator who was convicted of selling arms to Colombian rebels and conspiring to kill Americans, may provide Putin a boost at a moment when his war in Ukraine faces major setbacks. Last month, Russia’s military, struggling with high casualties and ill-equipped troops, were forced to pull out of the strategic Ukrainian city of Kherson.

Russia has objected to Bout’s detention since his 2008 arrest in a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency sting in Thailand. Former U.S. officials have said Moscow prioritized Bout’s release because of his links to Russia military intelligence and other well-connected Russians.

Russian officials on Thursday expressed jubilation over his return. The head of a Russian human rights organization said that Bout’s wife, Alla, had been informed of the release.

“This is a real New Year’s gift for her,” Ivan Melnikov, vice president of the Russian branch of the International Committee for the Protection of Human Rights.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said many Russians were celebrating.

“Unbelievable! We get messages — people write from Russia and abroad, they congratulate and rejoice over the release of Viktor Bout. They don’t know him personally,” she said in a message on her Telegram channel. “But they feel happy as if he were their close friend.”

Whelan, in a call with CNN after Griner’s release, said he had been led to believe he might soon be going home, and suggested he was being treated differently by Russia because he was convicted as a spy. He denies that charge.

“I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four-year anniversary of my arrest is coming up,” he said from the penal colony where he is being held.

“I would say that if a message could go to President Biden, that this is a precarious situation that needs to be resolved quickly,” he said. “My bags are packed. I’m ready to go home.”

U.S. officials said the decision to sign off on a transaction excluding Whelan was a difficult one.

This was not a choice for us of which American to bring home,” Jean-Pierre said. “It was a choice between bringing home one American or bringing home none. And we brought one home today.”

Biden said Russia “for totally illegitimate reasons” had decided to treat Whelan differently. “While we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up,” he said. “We will never give up.”

Whelan’s family expressed relief that Griner was heading home, but David Whelan described his brother’s exclusion from the deal as a “catastrophe.”

“It’s clear that the U.S. government has no concessions that the Russian government will take for Paul Whelan,” he said in a statement. “And so Paul will remain a prisoner until that changes.”

U.S. officials declined to provide details about ongoing discussions aimed at securing Whelan’s release, citing the need to keep those efforts secret.

Russia freed Brittney Griner in a high-profile prisoner exchange with the U.S. Here's what this means for the future of other American hostages. (Video: Rich Matthews/The Washington Post)

Blinken, who has worked with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the prisoner swap since the summer, declined to offer any hope regarding the release of Marc Fogel, an American teacher detained in Russia. Of Whelan, he told reporters Thursday that “at this moment, there was no way to bring him home.”

“Russia has continued to see Paul’s case through the lens of sham espionage charges,” Blinken said. He pledged that U.S. efforts to bring about his release “will not cease until Paul is home.”

U.S. officials acknowledged the imbalance in the trade, given Bout’s lengthy record of fueling deadly conflicts from Africa to Afghanistan, and Griner’s small amount of cannabis oil. While she pleaded guilty in a Russian court, her lawyers argued that she had been prescribed the drug for chronic pain.

One senior official said the administration’s efforts began with the idea that it was “unacceptable” for Griner to serve a long sentence for what U.S. officials see as a minor crime.

“From there, we worked to make it not so and to bring Americans home,” the official said, speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity to describe the discussions that led up to Griner’s release. “We try to explore all sorts of alternatives; we try to pay, of course, as little a price as possible, but, ultimately, we feel there’s a moral obligation, frankly, as well as a policy obligation, to bring people who are being held hostage or wrongfully detained home.”

The Griner deal was the second release of an American prisoner from Russian custody this year and illustrates Biden’s willingness to authorize the release of foreigners serving time in U.S. prisons for serious crimes.

That decision faced swift criticism from Republicans on Thursday.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who is vying to become speaker when Republicans take control of the chamber next year, called Bout’s release “a gift to Vladimir Putin.”

“It endangers American lives,” McCarthy said on Twitter. “Leaving Paul Whelan behind for this is unconscionable.”

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the trade would “only embolden Vladimir Putin to continue his evil practice of taking innocent Americans hostage for use as political pawns.”

Not only Republicans objected to Bout going free. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, described the Russian’s release as a “deeply disturbing decision” and likewise raised concerns about the deal encouraging future detentions of Americans overseas.

The exchanges have also generated consternation among current and former law enforcement officials, many of whom believe such trades should only occur when they involve prisoners convicted of similar crimes and worry that those trades could undermine the rule of law.

In April, Russia freed Trevor Reed, another former U.S. Marine, in exchange for Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was imprisoned on drug smuggling charges. Reed had been given a nine-year sentence in 2020 for endangering the “life and health” of Russian police officials.

Biden also authorized the release of an Afghan national convicted on drug smuggling charges in exchange for an American held hostage by the Taliban. In another swap in October, Venezuela freed seven Americans, including five oil executives, in exchange for two relatives of President Nicolás Maduro imprisoned on drug charges.

U.S. officials said they are taking steps to ensure the recent exchanges don’t prompt additional detentions of Americans overseas. Those steps include authorizing new sanctions and visa restrictions for individuals believed to be involved with hostage-taking and adding new information to travel advisories noting the increased danger of wrongful detention.

Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor who runs an organization to help free Americans detained abroad and who was involved in efforts to secure Griner’s release, defended such prisoner swaps and predicted Whelan would be released before the end of the year.

“The Russians are ready to deal on humanitarian prisoner issues,” he said. “Even though there are unseemly exchanges, they are necessary to get our hostages back.”

Shane Harris, Karen DeYoung, Devlin Barrett, Cleve Wootson Jr., Dan Lamothe and Tyler Pager in Washington, and Robyn Dixon and Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report. Ilyushina reported from Riga.