U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner has been released in a prisoner swap with Russia in exchange for former arms dealer Viktor Bout and was heading back to the United States on Thursday, ending what President Joe Biden called months of “hell” for her and her wife.
The swap was arranged after talks spanning months during a time of high tensions between the two countries in the wake of Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine. Even as Griner was on a flight bound for Texas, Bout arrived in Moscow and hugged his mother and wife after stepping onto the tarmac, images on live television showed.
Griner, held since a week before the invasion, traveled from a Russian penal colony to Moscow, then to Abu Dhabi’s airport in the United Arab Emirates where the exchange took place, with the two walking past each other on a tarmac, U.S. officials said.
“She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home after months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances,” Biden told reporters at the White House, adding she would arrive within the next 24 hours. “This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time. We never stopped pushing for her release.”
Biden said the United States will continue to work to free Paul Whelan, a former Marine also held in Russia, after being unable to convince Russia to release him as part of the negotiations.
Griner, 32, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and star of the Women’s National Basketball Association’s Phoenix Mercury, was arrested on Feb. 17 at a Moscow airport in February after vape cartridges containing cannabis oil, which is banned in Russia, were found in her luggage. She was sentenced on Aug. 4 to nine years in a penal colony on charges of possessing and smuggling drugs.
The Russian foreign ministry said it traded Griner for Bout, 55, a Russian citizen who in 2012 was given a 25-year prison sentence by a U.S. court on charges related to his arms-dealing career. For almost two decades, Bout had been the world’s most notorious arms dealer, selling weapons to rogue states, rebel groups and warlords in Africa, Asia and South America.
“I made it. That’s the main thing,” Bout said on Russian television, adding he had not been told ahead of time what would happen.
“In the middle of the night they simply woke me up and said ‘Get your things together’ and that was it,” Bout added.
The swap was a high-profile and rare example of cooperation between Washington and Moscow since the invasion. The two countries also swapped prisoners in April when Russia released former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed and the United States released Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko.
The Griner arrangements came together within the past 48 hours after Biden made the decision to exchange Bout in recent weeks, the White House said. A conditional grant of clemency for Bout was not completed until Thursday, Jean-Pierre said, after U.S. officials in the UAE verified Griner had arrived there.
Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke by phone with Griner from the Oval Office, along with Griner’s wife, Cherelle. The White House released a photo of the telephone call and Biden said Griner was “in good spirits” and had displayed “grit and incredible dignity” throughout the ordeal.
“These past few months have been hell for Brittney,” and for her wife, family and teammates, Biden said.
The UAE president and Saudi crown prince led mediation efforts that secured Griner’s release, a UAE-Saudi joint statement said.
White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre expressed gratitude that Saudi Arabia and other countries had raised the issue, but said the talks were between Russia and the United States. “There was no mediation involved,” Jean-Pierre said.
Some Republicans criticized the Democratic president for making the swap.
Former President Donald Trump derided the exchange of a basketball player for a man in Bout who was “responsible for tens of thousands of deaths and horrific injuries” without including Whelan.
“What a ‘stupid’ and unpatriotic embarrassment for the USA!!!” Trump wrote on social media.
“This is a gift to Vladimir Putin, and it endangers American lives,” House of Representatives Republican leader Kevin McCarthy wrote on social media, referring to Russia’s president.
Biden said, “It’s my job as president of the United States to make the hard calls and protect American citizens everywhere in the world.”
Griner was one of a number of American women’s basketball stars who had played for professional teams in Russia in recent years. Griner’s teammates and other WNBA players cheered her release.
She had pleaded guilty, but said she had made an “honest mistake” and had not meant to break the law. Last month she was taken to a penal colony in the Russian region of Mordovia to serve her prison sentence.
Cherelle Griner, who said she was “overwhelmed with emotions,” thanked Biden and members of his administration for their work to free her wife.
“Today my family is whole. BG and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home,” she added, referring to her wife’s initials.
Griner’s flight is expected to arrive in San Antonio, Texas.
Biden lamented that the United States was unable to win Whelan’s release.
“Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up,” Biden said.
“This was not a choice of which American to bring home,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said. “The choice was one or none.”
A Biden administration official said the United States had proposed multiple different options for Whelan’s release and that Russia’s “sham espionage” charges against him were the reason Moscow treated his case differently. U.S. officials spoke to him at length on Thursday about the Griner deal.
Whelan told CNN in an interview: “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. I was arrested for a crime that never occurred.”
Bout was one of the world’s most wanted men before his arrest in 2008 in Thailand after a sting operation by U.S. agents who recorded him offering to sell missiles to people he believed were leftist Colombian guerrillas. Bout was variously dubbed “the merchant of death” and “the sanctions buster” for his ability to get around arms embargoes.
For experts on the Russian security services, Moscow’s lasting interest in Bout hint strongly at Russian intelligence ties.