SAN ANTONIO — Brittney Griner landed in the United States early Friday after being released in a prisoner swap, ending a nearly 10-month saga that landed the WNBA star in the middle of Moscow’s feud with Washington.
“We are thrilled she is home,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), who has been advocating for her release. “This has been a long ordeal, one not of her making but of the making of a despot. It has been punishing and miserable but she is resilient and so happy to be home and be with her wife.”
The high-profile case galvanized Griner’s supporters in the sports world and beyond, including in Texas, her home state, where many were celebrating her arrival Friday. U.S. officials on the ground described her as being in good spirits and said she was grateful to be home. Her family also expressed their gratitude.
“We sincerely thank you all for the kind words, thoughts and prayers — including Paul and the Whelan family who have been generous with their support for Brittney and our family during what we know is a heartbreaking time,” Griner’s family said in a statement obtained by ESPN. “We pray for Paul and for all wrongfully detained Americans’ swift and safe return.”
U.S. officials have said they are still working to secure the release of Whelan, a U.S. Marine turned corporate security executive who was convicted of espionage and is serving a 16-year sentence in a Russian prison.
Griner’s arrest days before Russia invaded Ukraine in February highlighted the ordeal of U.S. citizens detained abroad by hostile foreign governments. She was handed a 9½-year prison sentence on charges of entering Russia with vape cartridges that contained less than a gram of cannabis oil, which is illegal in that country. Her lawyers claimed it had been prescribed for medical purposes, and the State Department considered her detention “wrongful.”
Supporters worried that because she is considered a leader in Black and LGBTQ communities, she would become target of abuse while detained in Russia, where the government has a record of hostility toward sexual minorities.
Griner was released Thursday in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, dubbed the “merchant of death.” Bout had served less than half of a 25-year sentence in Illinois for conspiring to kill American nationals and selling weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) insurgent group. He has already returned to Russia.
But while Griner’s release was being celebrated, others noted the unevenness of the prisoner swap. Bout, a 55-year-old former Soviet military translator, was one of the world’s most prolific arms traffickers. His misdeeds — the United Nations had accused him of profiting from selling weapons that fueled violent conflict across the African continent — were the inspiration for Nicolas Cage’s character in the Hollywood film “Lord of War.”
Bout was arrested in 2008 in Thailand after a Drug Enforcement Administration sting. He had been imprisoned in a federal penitentiary in Marion, Ill., in a special, restrictive unit dubbed “Little Guantánamo.”
The exchange was facilitated by the United Arab Emirates, a close security partner of the United States that has also welcomed many Russians after sanctions were levied on Moscow following the invasion of Ukraine. Edited images from Russian state media showed Griner and Bout passing each other for a brief moment on a runaway in Abu Dhabi.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre defended the administration’s deal Friday, saying the president will continue to work to bring Whelan home.
“The way that we see it is that this was an opportunity to bring an American home,” she said. The Russians “were not willing … to negotiate in good faith for Paul Whelan. And so it was either Brittney Griner, one American or no American.”
The Kremlin said Friday that the deal did not represent a step toward resolving diplomatic tensions with Washington over the war in Ukraine. And in comments aired on Russian state television, President Vladimir Putin characterized Griner’s release as an isolated instance in which the two nations had come to an agreement. But he also left the door open to similar resolutions on other cases.
“Are any other exchanges possible? Everything is possible,” he said.
In his first interview with Russian media, Bout said he could not find the words to describe how he was feeling but downplayed how significant his release was to Russia.
“I don’t think I’m in any way important to Russian politics,” he said, adding that characterizing the exchange as a weak or strong move from either government was “childish.”
“If there was a deal, it means that some common ground was found that could satisfy the two parties,” he said. “Otherwise this deal would not have happened.”
The push to bring Griner back involved the highest echelons of government — but also local leaders in Texas who saw her plight as a hometown cause.
Houston-area pastor and local NAACP leader Bishop James Dixon and Lee, the congresswoman, worked together to make calls, write letters and strategize. The legislator, for her part, formed a coalition of Texas and sports leaders to pressure the Russian government to accept the deal, which she said “had been on the table for a very long time.”
Dixon cautioned U.S. citizens traveling and living abroad to take note of this moment in global politics.
“I hope this unites Americans around the fact that we need to protect each other, and to recognize we are living in a difficult time internationally,” he said. “We need to have conversations about how we are viewed around the world and what we can do to improve that and keep all of us safe.”
There are no immediate plans for local celebrations out of respect for Griner’s recovery, but Houstonians are ecstatic, said Harris County Commissioner and longtime lawmaker Rodney Ellis.
“She’s a hometown hero,” he said.
For now, Griner will be at Brooke Army Medical Center, the country’s largest military hospital, home to the Defense Department’s only Level 1 trauma center. It is also a common way station for Americans returning from conditions like those experienced by Griner, before resuming their normal lives.
Earlier this year, Trevor Reed, a former Marine convicted in 2020 of endangering Russian police during a drunken exchange and sentenced to nine years in jail, stopped at Brooke for debriefing and treatment after being released in a prisoner exchange, before returning home. The center has also hosted several veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars who sustained serious injuries requiring extended treatment, including those who sustained burns, amputations, and other life-threatening and life-altering injuries.
The facility, on Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, is staffed by more than 8,000 personnel, and the military claims to treat more than 4,000 people at Brooke each day. The trauma center at the hospital is used to treat both service members and people from the surrounding community.
Though Griner’s time in Russian detention was relatively brief and she had regular access to U.S. consular officials monitoring her imprisonment, Diane Foley of the James W. Foley Foundation said she probably suffered trauma.
“She’s going to need time for herself with people who love her and to be protected from people who may want to reach her. She needs time to heal,” said Foley, who met Griner’s wife and family during their collective effort to bring Americans detained abroad home. “Only she will know how traumatized she is from the horror of it all. Brittney has a really strong support system, and I’m hopeful her recovery will be complete and quicker than others.”
William Courtney, a Russia expert with the nonprofit Rand Corp., said Russian officials were certainly keenly aware of Griner’s fame and how her imprisonment would inspire sympathy. During the Soviet years, he said, Kremlin leaders worried about the impact the prolonged detention of Westerners would have on their image.
“Russian authorities were concerned that she had received international support because she’s a global sports star,” Courtney said. “Holding on to her too long might have been something the Russians were not so eager to do.”
Putin needed the swap to appear equitable and probably rejected any proposals to exchange two valued prisoners — Griner and Whelan — for one Russian on the grounds that hard-liners in his government would dispute it, the analyst said. The one-for-one prisoner arrangement is a holdover from the Cold War. Courtney said he does not know the details of the Biden administration’s offers, but the Russians have long fought to bring Bout home because of the government secrets he probably possesses.
Griner’s return home was cheered both in her home city of Houston, which Mayor Sylvester Turner (D) said was lit up in red, white and blue in her honor Thursday night, and on social media, where celebrities including Cher offered their support.
“THANK GOD BRITTNEY’S FREE,” the singer wrote.
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Englebert, meanwhile, said the concern over Griner’s imprisonment had turned into “a collective wave of joy and relief.” But she also turned the focus back to other Americans detained abroad.
“Our hope is that Paul Whelan and every wrongfully detained American will be returned home safely and as soon as possible,” she said.
Karoun Demirjian, Ellen Francis and Tyler Pager in Washington, D.C.; and Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.
Brittney Griner released from Russian prison
The latest: WNBA star Brittney Griner landed in the United States around 5:30 a.m. ET Friday in San Antonio.
Prisoner trade deal: Her release was part of a prisoner swap for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. Nicknamed the “merchant of death,” Bout is a notorious arms dealer and has been in U.S. custody since his arrest in Thailand in 2008. It’s unclear why Moscow officials were so eager to bring him home.
Why was Griner detained?: Griner had been imprisoned in Russia since February, when she was accused of entering the country with vape cartridges that contained less than a gram of cannabis oil, which is illegal in the country.