U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner has been released from Russian custody in a swap for international arms dealer Viktor Bout after intensive negotiations.
The exchange occurred Thursday in the United Arab Emirates and will spark a fierce debate about the wisdom of swapping prisoners with hostile governments that relish the chance to use hostages for global leverage.
“She is safe, she is on a plane, she’s on her way home after months of being unjustly detained in Russia,” President Biden said at the White House.
The swap elicited praise from the Griner family, but Paul Whelan, another U.S. detainee, remains in Russian custody, angering his advocates and forcing senior administration officials to defend its decision as a choice between bringing Ms. Griner home or bringing no one home.
Mr. Biden said Russia is at fault for “treating Paul’s case differently” and that he will stay in contact with the Whelan family and keep negotiating.
“We are not giving up,” Mr. Biden said. “We will never give up.”
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The president said Ms. Griner, a Women’s National Basketball Association player for the Phoenix Mercury, was kept in intolerable conditions after her arrest and conviction on drug charges related to cannabis-derived oil discovered in her luggage last February.
“We never stopped pushing for her release,” Mr. Biden said alongside Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Ms. Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner.
Mr. Biden said Ms. Griner, who will undergo a medical evaluation, will need time and space to recover from her ordeal.
Mr. Biden’s decision to release Bout will also spark debate. He is a former Soviet army lieutenant colonel who was considered one of the most prolific arms dealers in the world.
Dubbed the “merchant of death,” he was arrested in 2008 in Thailand and convicted in a U.S. federal court on charges of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and officials, delivering anti-aircraft missiles and providing aid to a terrorist organization. He spent 10 years in a federal prison in Illinois before the Griner swap.
Senior administration officials highlighted the contrast between Bout, who was afforded due process in the U.S. courts, and the “sham proceedings” Ms. Griner faced in Russia.
They also characterized the situation as an extreme case in which there were few good options, hoping to forestall critics who believe the swap will entice hostile governments to detain Americans and use them as leverage.
“Any inference this will become the norm would be mistaken,” an official said.
In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry praised the agreement but said it only came about after sustained pressure from the Russian side to include Mr. Bout in the swap.
“Washington was categorically refusing to engage in dialogue on putting the Russian national on the exchange scheme,” the ministry said in a statement to the official Tass news agency. “Nevertheless, the Russian Federation continued to actively work towards the release of our fellow countryman.”
As a result of standing firm, “the Russian citizen has been returned to his homeland,” the Foreign Ministry statement said.
The prisoner exchange talks, first acknowledged by the Biden administration this summer, have been a rare point of direct contact between Washington and Moscow, proceeding despite a deep freeze in relations over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.
Mr. Biden met with Cherelle Griner in the Oval Office and they spoke to Brittney on the phone early Thursday. Ms. Harris joined them, and the White House released photos of the exchange.
Cherelle Griner offered “immense gratitude” to the White House and a long list of people who negotiated Brittney’s release. Cherelle also praised Brittney’s Mercury teammates for their support.
Mr. Biden said, “This work is not easy. Negotiations are always difficult. It’s my job as president to make hard calls.”
The swap is a huge relief for Ms. Griner, who was sent to a penal colony after her arrest at a Moscow airport subsequent conviction.
Her arrest coincided with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, complicating the negotiations and prompting many to believe Russian President Vladimir Putin viewed Ms. Griner as a diplomatic pawn.
The WNBA and others made an intensive lobbying push to get Ms. Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, out.
“I know that support meant a lot to Brittney and her family,” Mr. Biden said.
Mr. Whelan, meanwhile, was detained by the Russians while visiting Moscow for a friend’s wedding in 2018. He was accused of espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison on charges that Mr. Whelan and the U.S. government deny.
Mr. Whelan also has British, Canadian and Irish citizenship. He was discharged from the U.S. Marines for bad conduct in 2008 on larceny charges and later worked as a security executive for BorgWarner, an auto parts supplier.
Whelan family members say they do not understand why he has been passed over. Another U.S. citizen and former Marine, Trevor Reed, was released in a swap earlier this year, meaning this is the second high-profile situation in which Mr. Whelan missed out.
Cherelle Griner said her family would use their high-profile voices to advocate for Americans detained abroad, including Mr. Whelan.
Mr. Blinken in a statement praised the work of special presidential hostage affairs envoy Roger Carstens, who he said was accompanying Ms. Griner on her flight back to the U.S. and thanked the UAE for its role in facilitating the swap.
Like Mr. Biden, Mr. Blinken said he regretted that Mr. Whelan was not part of the deal, vowing the administration would keep working to free him.
“Paul Whelan and his family continue to suffer needlessly,” the secretary of state said. ” Despite our ceaseless efforts, the Russian government has not yet been willing to bring a long overdue end to his wrongful detention.”
Senior administration officials on Thursday said they are trying to deter future hostage situations by warning Americans about the risk of wrongful detention by certain governments. It is also wielding other tools, such as a ban on visas for people from countries that engage in wrongful detention.
They defended their efforts to bring American detainees home from places that range from West Africa to Burma. They said some of the cases are kept quiet to pull off their release.
They acknowledged that the immediate results of the work can feel “unfair and arbitrary.” They said they brought up the Whelan case at every step of the process, but the Russians treated his case differently and it was a choice between Ms. Griner or no one — not a choice between Ms. Griner or Mr. Whelan.
Jonathan Franks, a spokesman for the Bring Our Families Home campaign, said the U.S. needs to do more.
“While we celebrate Brittney’s homecoming, our hearts break for the Whelan family,” he said. “Paul Whelan has been let down and left behind at least three times by two presidents. He deserves better from his government, and our campaign implores President Biden to urgently secure Paul’s immediate return using all tools available.”
• David R. Sands contributed to this story.