Months and months of “difficult” negotiations with the Russians culminated in a prisoner swap that secured Britney Griner’s release on Thursday, and it was only in recent weeks that it became clear that there was a deal, senior U.S. administration officials said. Opportunity.
How the swap unfolds: The final agreement itself was reached within the past 48 hours, officials said, kickstarting the process of moving Griner from the place of exile where she is serving a long sentence.
She boarded a plane to the United Arab Emirates on Thursday morning. Once there, U.S. officials met her on the tarmac, including Roger Carstens, the president’s special envoy for hostage affairs. She was in an “extremely optimistic mood”, “brightly smiling” and “overwhelmed with gratitude”.
The WNBA star is healthy and “has extensive support options,” officials said. She will receive a “full range” of services to help her return to family life.
Bout’s release will require the president’s clemency, ending more than 12 years of Bout’s incarceration in the United States. However, the official made it clear that his conviction stands.
The United States briefed some key partners, including Ukraine, on the negotiations and agreements that secured Griner’s release. However, the war in Ukraine itself was not at the heart of the talks to secure her release.
The United States is working with many other international partners in efforts to free Griner, including the United Arab Emirates, where she flew after leaving Russia. However, U.S. officials said many countries were involved when asked about the role of Saudi Arabia, which claimed in a statement that its powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had co-led mediation efforts to secure Griner’s release. .
But Paul Whelan is still in Russian custody: Officials said Greiner’s release was a major breakthrough, but a “painful” one nonetheless. In exchange for a convicted arms dealer, Russia would simply agree to release Griner, leaving another American, Paul Whelan. In numerous contacts over the past weeks and months, Russian officials have made it clear that releasing Victor Bout is the only way they can free Greener.
The choice, the official said, was “to bring Britney Greener home now, or not to bring Americans home from Russia now.”
Biden made the “difficult decision” to accept the deal. Senior U.S. government officials visited Whelan’s sister to “share and talk” about the news. On Thursday, another senior U.S. official spoke at length with Whelan himself, who remains in a Russian prison.
The U.S. has presented Russia with a number of options to secure Whelan’s release, officials said, and believe Moscow remains open to negotiations.