Speed Reads

She's coming home

How the White House negotiated for Brittney Griner's release

WNBA player Brittney Griner was released from a Russian detention center early Thursday in a prisoner swap for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, CBS News reports. Griner was detained in the country for nine months after being arrested at a Moscow airport on drug charges. She later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison. 

Sources familiar with the deal say President Biden approved the exchange agreement negotiated with Moscow sometime within the last week, per CBS. To secure Griner's release, Biden agreed to release Bout, nicknamed the "Merchant of Death," who was serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. since 2012 on charges of conspiring to kill Americans and supporting terrorists, per CNN. Biden signed a commutation order to cut Bout's sentence short, releasing Bout in exchange for Griner. A former U.S. official told CBS that Bout's return has always been a high priority for Vladimir Putin due to his personal history with Russia's leader. 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov confirmed Griner's release and said officials carried out the prisoner swap at Abu Dhabi Airport.

"For a long time, the Russian Federation has been negotiating with the United States on the release of V.A. Bout," Lavrov said. "Washington categorically refused to engage in dialogue on the inclusion of the Russian in the exchange scheme. Nevertheless, the Russian Federation continued to actively work to rescue our compatriot."

The tense negotiations for the prisoner swap lasted five months and originally included propositions for the release of Paul Whelan, a U.S. Marine imprisoned in Russia for almost four years. U.S. officials say he was falsely accused of espionage charges, and were attempting to secure his release along with Griner's. In July, the Justice Department proposed a swap for both Whelan and Griner for Bout, but Moscow rejected the offer. While the White House could not secure Whelan's release, Biden said they would "never give up" on getting him home. 

"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 Britney's."

President Biden spoke to Griner on the phone after the swap. He was joined in the Oval Office by Cherelle Griner, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.