WASHINGTON — WNBA star Brittney Griner was free Thursday after the Biden administration negotiated her release from a Russian penal colony in exchange for an arms dealer, according to a senior administration official.
President Joe Biden signed off on the trade, which took place in the United Arab Emirates, even though it meant leaving behind Paul Whelan, a U.S. corporate security executive who remains jailed in Russia.
“She is safe, she is on a plane, she is on her way home,” Biden said Thursday morning at the White House. “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 continue to work to free Whelan. “We’ll keep negotiating for Paul’s relief. I guarantee it.”
Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, was in the Oval Office with Biden, and the two were able to speak with her by phone, a senior administration official said.
Cherelle Griner, speaking after Biden, expressed her “sincere gratitude” to Biden and several other officials whom she mentioned by name for their work.
Griner will be flown to a medical facility in San Antonio where she will receive care, a senior administration official said. Cherelle Griner will meet her there, a senior administration official said.
The move is one of the highest-profile prisoner swaps between Moscow and Washington since the Cold War, with the Kremlin recovering Viktor Bout, whom Russian President Vladimir Putin has been wanting to get back — and who had served 11 years of a 25-year sentence in the U.S.
Some conservatives, however, said Biden negotiated a bad deal.
They slammed the White House for not securing the release of Whelan and for letting Bout go free, arguing it will give incentives to bad actors like Russia and North Korea to arrest more Americans to be used as bargaining chips.
“Biden just gave Putin a huge, huge tool in the toolkit to fund and arm Russia’s war machine,” Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., said on Fox News.
Some on the right attacked Griner as being less deserving of release than Whelan, because she once protested during the playing of the national anthem at WNBA games to raise awareness of racial justice issues.
Griner’s return will cap a monthslong saga that began in February, when she was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport after Russian authorities said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. She was later jailed on drug charges.
Griner, 32, of the Phoenix Mercury, was the subject of prolonged and often public negotiations after a trial that underscored frayed relations amid Russia’s war in Ukraine. Biden’s administration had sought the release of both Griner and Whelan.
“I’m telling you, I am determined to get her home and get her home safely — along with others, I might add,” Biden said Nov. 9.
The deal was reached about a week ago, an official said, after the Biden administration floated a number of proposals to secure the release of both Griner and Whalen — all of which Russia rejected.
“We explored a host of different scenarios, and they were not ready to negotiate in good faith for the release of Paul,” the official said.
Whelan is serving a 16-year prison sentence after he was accused of spying, which the U.S. has denied. People familiar with the negotiations for his release say the Russians refused to free him without getting a Russian spy in return. The U.S. insists it has no Russian spies in its custody and therefore no one to trade.
Griner’s release marks a stunning turn of events from last month, when she began serving a nine-year sentence at a penal colony more than 200 miles east of Moscow.
Griner pleaded guilty at her trial in July but said she had no criminal intent. Griner said the canisters, which she had been prescribed to treat chronic pain, were packed inadvertently as she hurriedly prepared for her flight.
As her trial neared its end in early August, it became public that the U.S. had put a prisoner swap offer on the table. Russia called for “quiet diplomacy” but said after Griner was sentenced that it was ready to discuss a deal.
NBC News reported in July that the U.S. proposed a prisoner exchange for the release of Griner and Whelan, who has been detained since 2018. The deal, two sources familiar with the matter confirmed at the time, would have included the U.S.’s releasing Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death” because he was considered one of the world’s biggest illicit arms dealers.
Bout was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison in 2012 after he was convicted of selling arms to Colombian rebels, which prosecutors said were intended to kill Americans. The Kremlin has demanded his release over the past decade, saying he was unfairly targeted.
The swap marks the most prominent diplomatic engagement between the two countries since the U.S. and its allies firmly backed Kyiv and condemned the Kremlin for launching the war against Ukraine in February.
The Biden administration has faced tremendous pressure to help bring home Griner, whose teammates, family and friends, as well as a number of U.S. celebrities, lobbied for her return.
In a written statement Thursday night, the Griner family thanked Biden, his administration and others for their work.
“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,” the family said. “We pray for Paul and for the swift and safe return of all wrongfully-detained Americans.”
The family asked for privacy “as we embark on this road to healing.”
It is the second publicly known U.S. prisoner swap with Russia since the war in Ukraine started. Trevor Reed, a former Marine, was released in April after having spent nearly three years in a Russian jail. He was freed in a prisoner exchange in which 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 2010.
With the U.S. and its Western allies confronting the realities of a new Cold War with Russia in the wake of the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, the high-stakes swap will evoke memories of Soviet-era trades involving spies.
One of the best-known Cold War swaps involved U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers, whose U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union. He was traded in 1962 for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel in an exchange on a fog-shrouded bridge between West Berlin and East Germany.
The largest U.S.-Russian spy swap since the Cold War was in 2010, when 10 Russian agents, including Anna Chapman, were exchanged for four other Russians accused of spying for the West — among them Sergei Skripal, who was later poisoned with a nerve agent in the United Kingdom. The British government blamed Moscow for the poisoning.