Brittney Griner, the American basketball star imprisoned in Russia, was released on Thursday (Dec. 8) in a prisoner swap for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer whose notoriety earned him the epithet “Merchant of Death.”
President Joe Biden confirmed her release at a press conference in the Roosevelt Room, accompanied by Griner’s family, and said she would be back in the United States within 24 hours.
Media reports indicate that the Biden administration had been pushing for the prisoner swap to include Paul Whelan, a former US Marine that’s been detained in Russia since December 2018, but that the Kremlin would not agree to anything other than a one-for-one exchange. In doing so, Russia laid a trap for the White House, exposing it to the perception of picking one person over the other and fostering a divisive narrative.
Paul Whelan’s case
Both Biden and Cherelle Griner, the basketball player’s wife, mentioned Whelan, who was convicted and sentenced to 16 years in a Russian prison for espionage in 2020, in their statements on Thursday.
“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,” Biden said, echoing the US’s view that Whelan’s imprisonment is a part of larger geopolitical tensions between the two countries.
“BG and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today,” Cherelle vowed, mentioning her wife by her initials.
Critics of Biden—including Donald Trump Jr., son of former president Donald Trump—seized the opportunity to criticize the president’s decision to prioritize an athlete over a veteran serving a longer sentence.
Whelan’s brother David Whelan pushed back against this characterization in a press statement, saying that it was the right decision to bring Griner home and to “make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to.”
Timeline of Griner’s imprisonment
Feb. 17: Griner is detained by Russian customs officials at an airport near Moscow after two vape cartridges containing hash oil were found in her luggage. Griner was traveling to Russia to play for a professional women’s basketball team during the WNBA offseason.
May 3: The US State Department says Griner is being “wrongfully detained,” signaling that they were getting involved in negotiating for her release. Later that month, Russian media reports that American and Russian authorities were discussing a possible prisoner swap for Bout.
July 7: Griner pleads guilty to all charges in a closed-door trial, adding that “there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law.” Later that month, negotiations about the possible swap begin between US secretary of state Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov.
Oct. 25: A Russian court upholds Griner’s Aug. 4 conviction, sentencing the 32-year-old to nine years in a prison camp.