In a spectacular high-level prisoner swap on Thursday, Russia released WNBA star Brittney Griner in return for the release of notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, according to American and Russian officials.
President Joe Biden’s principal objective was fulfilled by the trade, which took place during a period of increased tensions over Ukraine, but it came at a high cost and left an American prisoner in Russia for over four years.
The deal, which marked the second such swap with Russia in eight months, secured the release of the most well-known American held overseas.
Griner, a two-time gold medallist at the Olympics, was wrongfully imprisoned for several months on drug-related accusations, which took the issue to a new level of public attention.
The increasing pressure on Biden’s administration to repatriate Griner was highlighted by his approval of releasing a Russian felon once known as “the Merchant of Death.”
This was especially true given the recent conclusion of her criminal prosecution and her subsequent transfer to a correctional camp.
Under the condition of anonymity, U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the negotiations but who were not authorized to speak publicly about the agreement before a White House statement confirmed the trade.
While her wife Cherelle was in the Oval Office on Thursday, Biden said with Griner.
Later in the morning, the president was scheduled to speak to the media.
I just spoke with Brittney Griner.
She’s secure. She’s in the air. Her journey home has begun, Biden tweeted.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also verified the exchange, which stated in a statement that Bout had been flown back home after the exchange took place in Abu-Dhabi.
After months of tense negotiations, Russian and American officials have recently expressed cautious optimism.
Biden stated in November that he was confident that Russia would agree now that the midterm elections were over.
A deal could be reached by the end of the year; a senior Russian official indicated last week.
Even so, it came as a surprise that the deal was a one-for-one exchange given that American officials had previously expressed their desire to extradite Griner, as well as Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive who has been imprisoned in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the US government have said, are unfounded.
The United States liberated Bout, a former lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Army who the Justice Department previously referred to as one of the most active arms dealers in the world.
Bout, whose exploits were made into a Hollywood film, was given a 25-year sentence for conspiring to sell weapons worth tens of millions of dollars that U.S. officials claimed would be used against Americans.
Ultimately, the Biden administration was open to trading Bout for Griner’s freedom.
One of the greatest WNBA players ever being detained resulted in extraordinary public interest in a single detainee case and significant pressure on the White House.
Griner became the most well-known American detained abroad after her arrest in February.
Infusing racial, gender, and social dimensions into her legal tale and elevating each event to a matter of global significance was her status as an openly homosexual Black woman being imprisoned in a nation where the government has been hostile to the LBGTQ community.