By Jennifer Hansler, Kylie Atwood, Jeremy Herb, MJ Lee and Kevin Liptak, CNN
WNBA star Brittney Griner has been released from Russian detention, President Joe Biden said Thursday.
Griner was released in a prisoner swap that involved Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. The exchange, however, did not include another American that the State Department has declared wrongfully detained, Paul Whelan.
“She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home,” Biden said at the White House Thursday morning alongside Griner’s wife, Cherelle. “After months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under untolerable circumstances, Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones, and she should have been there all along.”
Biden acknowledged that Griner’s release was occurring while Whelan remained imprisoned, saying that Whelan’s family “have to have such mixed emotions today.”
“This was not a choice of which American to bring home,” Biden said. “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.”
Griner is expected to land in San Antonio, Texas, a US official told CNN.
Griner’s February arrest in Russia sparked diplomatic drama between the US and the Kremlin that played out alongside Russia’s war in Ukraine. At the same time that the US enacted crippling sanctions in response to the Ukraine war, US diplomats kept open lines of communication with Moscow over prisoner negotiations to try to secure the release of both Griner and Whelan.
Biden said efforts to bring Griner home took “painstaking and intense negotiations” as he thanked members of his administration who were involved.
“This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time. We never stopped pushing for her release,” he said.
The prisoner swap occurred in Abu Dhabi Thursday, according to senior Biden administration officials. A joint statement from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia said the Gulf countries played a role mediating the exchange between the US and Russia.
Asked when Griner would be home following his remarks, Biden indicated it would be in the next “24 hours.” As for what he would say to Whelan’s family, he said, “We’re speaking to them.”
Cherelle Griner thanked the administration for helping secure her wife’s release and said she was “overwhelmed with emotions.”
Both she and Brittney Griner “will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today,” she added.
The Griner family echoed those sentiments in a statement Thursday night.
“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.”
Whelan told CNN in an exclusive phone call from the penal colony where is being held in a remote part of Russia that he was “disappointed” the Biden administration has not done more to secure his release. Whelan said he was happy that Griner was released, but that he “was led to believe that things were moving in the right direction, and that the governments were negotiating and that something would happen fairly soon.”
“I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here,” he said.
The Biden administration has ideas about “new forms of offers” they are going to try with the Russians in an effort to secure Whelan’s release, a senior administration official told CNN on Thursday.
The official said there is a recognition that the US needs to make available “something more, something different” from what they have offered to the Russians thus far — and didn’t rule out offering a Russian spy in US custody in a potential prisoner swap.
“There is a willingness to pay even a very big price on the part of this president,” the official said. “We have made clear to the Russians, that we at least are open to talking about that which is at our disposal, that which we could actually deliver. It would be somebody in our custody.”
The Griner prisoner exchange prompted criticism from Republicans, who accused the Biden administration of releasing a dangerous prisoner back to Russia while not securing Whelan’s release.
“This is a gift to Vladimir Putin, and it endangers American lives,” tweeted House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy. “Leaving Paul Whelan behind for this is unconscionable.”
Griner — who, for years, had played in the off-season for a Russian women’s basketball team — had been detained since February, when she was arrested on drug smuggling charges at an airport in the Moscow region. Despite her testimony that she had inadvertently packed the cannabis oil that was found in her luggage, she was sentenced to nine years in prison in early August and was moved to a penal colony in the Mordovia republic in mid-November after losing her appeal.
‘The only deal we could make right now’
Months and months of “difficult” negotiations with the Russians culminated in Thursday’s prisoner swap, senior US administration officials said, with it becoming clear only in recent weeks that an opening existed to secure the American basketball player’s release.
The final deal itself came together over the past 48 hours, the officials said, launching the process of moving Griner from the penal colony where she was serving a lengthy sentence.
That opening, while a significant breakthrough, was still a “painful” one, the officials said: in exchange for a convicted arms dealer, Russia would only agree to release Griner, leaving another American — Whelan — behind. In multiple engagements over the past weeks and months, Russian officials made clear that releasing Bout was the only way they would free Griner from her detention.
Biden gave final approval for the prisoner swap freeing Griner over the past week, an official familiar with the matter said.
Biden was briefed throughout the morning as he awaited confirmation that Griner was back in US hands, a US official said. Once that happened, Biden spoke with Griner from the Oval Office, with Cherelle Griner, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken was also on the call, a second official said.
The Russians signaled recently that they were only willing to negotiate for Griner and not Whelan, a US official said, because Russia said it has been handling their cases differently based on what each has been accused of.
The Biden administration repeatedly made offers to get Whelan released as part of this deal, even after Russia made clear only Griner was acceptable.
In the end, when it was clear Russia was going to refuse on Whelan, the US had to accept it.
“It was a choice to get Brittney or nothing,” the US official said.
The official says that was a “difficult decision” for Biden, but again, one he felt he had to make.
Griner was moved from the penal colony to Moscow within the last 48 hours. Thursday morning, she boarded a plane for the United Arab Emirates. Upon arriving there, she was met on the tarmac by US officials, including special presidential envoy for hostage affairs Roger Carstens. She was in “an extremely upbeat mood” and “all smiles” and “grateful.”
Whelan family ‘devastated’
Whelan, a US, Irish, British and Canadian citizen, was detained at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 by Russian authorities who alleged he was involved in an intelligence operation. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges he has vehemently denied. Whelan had been carrying out his sentence at a different labor camp in Mordovia, an eight-hour drive from Moscow, where he told CNN in June 2021 he spent his days working in a clothing factory that he called a “sweatshop.”
Whelan’s family expressed happiness at the news that Griner is on her way home but said Thursday they are “devastated” that he was left behind.
“It’s a great day for the families of the wrongfully detained and we feel wonderful for them,” David Whelan, Paul’s brother, said on “CNN This Morning.” “But we do worry about what’s in Paul’s future. I think it’s become clear that the US doesn’t have any concessions that the Russian government wants for Paul. So I’m not really sure what the future holds.”
The Biden administration told Whelan’s family ahead of the Griner announcement, David Whelan said.
In an email to the media, David Whelan said his family was “devastated” at the news and increasingly worries that Paul won’t survive the rest of his sentence.
As it became clear that Whelan would not be released alongside Griner, Whelan’s sister was visited in person by senior US government officials to “share and talk through” the news, according to senior administration officials.
Earlier this year, after the US secured the release of Trevor Reed, another American who’d been detained in Russia since 2019, Paul Whelan expressed frustration through a statement shared by his parents.
“Why was I left behind?” Whelan said in April. “While I am pleased Trevor is home with his family, I have been held on a fictitious charge of espionage for 40 months.”
‘Merchant of Death’ included in swap
Bout has returned home to Russia, the Russian foreign ministry said Thursday. The prisoner exchange with Griner was “completed successfully at Abu Dhabi Airport” on Thursday, the ministry said.
It was a US decision to have the exchange happen in Abu Dhabi, an official familiar with the discussion said. “Russia was happy with it,” then UAE facilitated and provided the venue.
When Putin and UAE President Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, known as MBZ, met in Russia in October, one of the issues they discussed was prisoner exchanges, and there was an agreement that the UAE could be helpful on the topic, a senior UAE official told CNN.
The US was aware that MBZ planned to raise the topic with Putin and there was nothing but encouragement from the US side, the official said.
“There was criticism of the Putin meeting at the time. But that meeting is part of the reason that Griner was released today,” the official said.
In his statement Thursday, Biden thanked the United Arab Emirates for its help with the exchange.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia said in a joint statement that the two countries were involved in joint mediation efforts leading to the prisoner swap. The statement said that the “success of the mediation efforts is a reflection of the mutual and solid friendship that connects both countries with the United States of America, and the Russian Federation.”
Asked about the role of Saudi Arabia, US officials suggested a number of countries were involved.
“We have and I’m sure we’ll continue to lean on partners around the world to work this through with us and to give us their ideas and to impress upon the Russians how important it is to us to resolve these sorts of cases. We appreciate when those partners do help us,” an administration official said.
Bout, nicknamed the “Merchant of Death,” is a former Soviet military officer serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States on charges of conspiring to kill Americans, acquire and export anti-aircraft missiles, and provide material support to a terrorist organization. Moscow had slammed his sentencing in 2012 as “baseless and biased” and Bout has maintained he is innocent.
Steve Zissou, Bout’s lawyer in the US, told CNN on Thursday that the prisoner swap between Griner and his client was “fair.”
“As I have urged for some time, given the 15 long years that Viktor Bout has been in custody since the United States government targeted him in 2006, his exchange for Brittney Griner, who has only been in custody for a few months, is fair,” Zissou said in a statement.
Zissou told CNN said that his legal team knew a swap was imminent 24 hours ago.
This story has been updated with additional developments.
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CNN’s Becky Anderson, Haley Britzky, Matthew Chance, Anna Chernova, Betsy Klein, Alex Marquardt, Phil Mattingly, Shawna Mizelle, Abby Phillip and Uliana Pavlova contributed to this report.