By Michael D. Shear and Peter Baker
Brittney Griner, the American basketball star imprisoned in Russia, was released Thursday after nearly 10 months of captivity in a prisoner swap for Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death,” President Joe Biden announced.
In a brief statement from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, with Cherelle Griner, Griner’s wife, by his side, Biden confirmed the release and said that Griner would be back in the United States within 24 hours.
“I spoke with Brittney Griner,” Biden said. “She’s safe. She’s on a plane. She’s on her way home after months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held in intolerable circumstances.”
He added: “Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones — and she should have been there all along.”
Cherelle Griner described her wife’s imprisonment as “the darkest moments” in her life. She thanked Biden and administration officials for working tirelessly to secure Griner’s release.
“Today, I’m just standing here, overwhelmed with emotions,” she said.
The cheer inside the White House was tempered by the failure to secure the release of Paul Whelan, another American who remained in Russian custody on Thursday despite months of efforts by U.S. diplomats to include him as part of the deal with the Russians for the exchange with Bout.
Whelan, a Marine veteran who later worked as a corporate security executive, was arrested at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 and convicted in June 2020 on espionage charges that the U.S. government says were manufactured.
A senior White House official said Thursday that Russians made it clear within the last several weeks that the choice for Biden would be to approve a one-to-one swap — Griner for Bout — and that they were unwilling to consider releasing Whelan. The official, who asked not to be named to discuss the negotiations, said the president made “the difficult decision” to proceed.
The official said that the president agreed to a “one-for-one” swap much like he did in April when he agreed to release Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot, in exchange for Trevor Reed, an ailing U.S. Marine veteran held for two years on what his family considered to be bogus charges of assault.
In an email to supporters, David Whelan, Whelan’s brother, celebrated Griner’s release, saying that “the Biden administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.” But he added that “it’s clear the U.S. government needs to be more assertive.”
“If bad actors like Russia are going to grab innocent Americans, the U.S. needs a swifter, more direct response, and to be prepared in advance,” David Whelan said.
In his remarks celebrating Griner’s release, Biden pledged to continue working to free Whelan.
“Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s,” he said. “And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”
Griner, an All-Star center with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was serving a nine-year prison sentence that put her at the center of a fraught geopolitical showdown between Washington and Moscow. In February, she was stopped at an airport near Moscow after customs officials found two vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.
Her case became an international cause because she was seen as a hostage held by President Vladimir Putin’s government as Russia was subjected to a broad swath of international sanctions in response to its invasion of Ukraine a week after her arrest. The Biden administration’s efforts to negotiate a prisoner swap stalled for months as she was sent to a penal colony outside Moscow.
American officials said efforts to secure Griner’s release began to show signs of succeeding in recent weeks, with Russian officials indicating that they would be open to a swap for Bout.
Two days ago, Russians moved Griner from the penal colony to Moscow, in preparation for a possible swap, according to a senior White House official. Thursday morning, Russians put Griner on a plane and flew her to an airport in the United Arab Emirates, whose government had agreed to serve as the location for the swap.
In return, Biden granted clemency for Bout, cutting short his time in a U.S. prison, where he has been held for 12 years. He was scheduled to be released in 2029, but was instead returned to the custody of Russian officials at the United Arab Emirates airport.
Griner had been described by one of her lawyers this fall as struggling emotionally and increasingly worried that she would not be freed. She was permitted outside once a day to walk for an hour in a small courtyard, according to her lawyer, and otherwise confined to a cramped cell with two cellmates. She slept on a specially elongated bed to accommodate her 6-foot-9 frame.
American officials met with her in the penal colony last month for the first time since a Russian court rejected her appeal and reported that she was doing “as well as can be expected,” as a White House spokeswoman put it at the time.
Griner turned 32 while in custody.
The trade for Bout gave Moscow back one of the most notorious arms dealers of modern times, a man who earned the nickname “Merchant of Death” as he evaded capture for years. He was convicted in 2011 by a New York jury on four counts that included conspiring to kill American citizens. Prosecutors said he had agreed to sell anti-aircraft weapons to drug enforcement informants who were posing as arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
The senior White House official defended the administration’s decision to swap Bout for Griner, saying the top priority for Biden is to bring wrongfully detained Americans home. But he said that it was a difficult decision for the president and that such swaps would only be made in “extraordinary and rare” cases.
The exchange is certain to spark criticism that Biden is encouraging foreign governments to take more Americans captive in the hopes of later trading them for someone or something they want in return.
Administration officials have tried to respond to that concern by using sanctions or travel bans to punish governments or others who take hostages and by increasing the warnings to Americans traveling abroad about the danger of being taken into custody by adversarial governments. The official said that no one should expect the administration to make such deals in every case, but said that in Griner’s situation, officials felt a “moral” burden to act.