Brittney Griner, the American basketball star detained by Russian authorities in February, has safely returned to the United States after being released from custody in a prisoner exchange.
Griner, 32, “arrived at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas early Friday … and was taken to Brooke Army Medical Center for a routine evaluation,” a State Department official told CNN.
U.S. officials who met Griner said she was “in good spirits” and “incredibly gracious,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told CNN. Griner got off the plane shortly after 5:30 a.m. ET at Kelly Field.
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“So happy to have Brittney back on American soil. Welcome home BG!” tweeted Roger Carstens, a State Department official traveling with Griner, on Friday morning.
Griner’s release was secured after a US-Russia prisoner swap involving international arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was arrested in 2008 in Thailand and extradited to the US in 2010.
The exchange was conducted Thursday in Abu Dhabi, senior Biden administration officials said. A joint statement from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia said the Gulf countries played a role in brokering the exchange between the United States and Russia.
It is not a sign of improvement in US-Russian relations, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday.
Griner’s arrest and conviction came against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and added further attention to the plight of other Americans in Russian custody, including Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed. Whelan’s release could not be secured in the latest prisoner swap, while Reed returned to the US in April after a nearly three-year ordeal.
The Biden administration will continue to negotiate with Russia to secure Whelan’s release, it said Friday. The Russians “have things they want in this world,” and Moscow knows that ultimately the two sides will reach “a mutually acceptable arrangement if they keep talking to us,” said a senior official in administration to CNN.
President Joe Biden said the effort to bring Griner home took “careful and intense negotiations” as he thanked members of his administration who were involved.
“This is a day we’ve been working towards for a long time. We never stopped pushing for her release,” he said Thursday.
The final deal came together over 48 hours, senior US administration officials said, and launched the process of moving Griner from the penal colony where she was serving a lengthy sentence. Biden gave final approval for the prisoner swap to free Griner over the past week, an official familiar with the matter said.
Bout has returned home to Russia, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Thursday. The prisoner exchange with Griner was “successfully completed at Abu Dhabi Airport” on Thursday, the ministry said.
Griner’s family thanked Biden and his administration in a statement Thursday, as well as former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, whose Richardson Center worked on behalf of the family to help secure Griner’s release. They also expressed gratitude for the public support they have received.
“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 statement said.
“We pray for Paul and for the speedy and safe return of all wrongfully detained Americans.”
With Griner’s return being heralded as a diplomatic feat, officials and supporters have expressed disappointment that Whelan could not come home either.
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, which he has vehemently denied. The US State Department has declared him wrongfully detained.
Russia has handled Whelan’s and Griner’s cases differently based on what each has been charged with, it has said, and recently signaled it would negotiate only on Griner, even though the Biden administration offered to have Whelan released as a part of this agreement.
“This was not an election about which American to bring home,” Biden said Thursday. “Unfortunately, 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.”
Whelan was pleased Griner was released, but “disappointed” the Biden administration has not done more to secure his release, he told CNN Thursday by phone from a penal colony in a remote part of Russia.
“I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here,” he said.
The Biden administration has ideas for “new kinds of deals” to try with the Russians to secure Whelan’s release, a senior administration official told CNN on Thursday. There is a recognition that the United States needs to provide “something more, something different” than what it has offered so far, said the official, who did not rule out offering a Russian spy in American custody in a potential prisoner swap.
“There is a willingness to pay even a very large price on the part of this president,” the official said.
Whelan’s family was glad Griner was on his way home, but “devastated” he was left behind, they said Thursday. The Biden administration told Whelan’s family about her release ahead of the Griner announcement, Paul’s brother David Whelan told CNN.