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Brittney Griner released from Russian detention

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Months and months of “difficult” negotiations with the Russians culminated in Thursday’s prisoner swap securing the release of Brittney Griner, senior US administration officials said, with it becoming clear only in recent weeks that an opening existed for the deal to occur.

How the swap unfolded: The final deal itself came together over the past 48 hours, the officials said, launching the process of moving Griner from the penal colony where she was serving a lengthy sentence.

On Thursday morning, she boarded a plane for the United Arab Emirates. Upon arriving there, she was met on the tarmac by US officials, including special presidential envoy for hostage affairs Roger Carstens. She was in “an extremely upbeat mood” and “all smiles” and “grateful.”

The WNBA star is in good health and is “being offered a wide range of support options,” the officials said. She’ll be offered a “full range” of services to help transition back to life at home.

Bout’s release required an act of clemency from the president ending Bout’s time in US custody after more than 12 years. Yet the official made clear the guilt of his conviction remained in place. 

The US briefed a number of key partners — including the Ukrainians — on the negotiations and agreement securing Griner’s release. Yet the war in Ukraine was not itself at the center of the talks securing her release.

The US engaged a number of other international partners in the effort to release Griner, including the United Arab Emirates, where she was flown after leaving Russia. Yet asked about the role of Saudi Arabia, which claimed in a statement that its powerful crown price Mohammed bin Salman jointly led mediation efforts securing Griner’s release, US officials suggested a number of countries were involved.

But Paul Whelan remains in Russian detention: Griner’s release was a significant breakthrough, but still a “painful” one, the officials said. In exchange for a convicted arms dealer, Russia would only agree to release Griner, leaving another American — Paul Whelan — behind. In multiple engagements over the past weeks and months, Russian officials made clear that releasing Viktor Bout was the only way they would free Griner from her detention.

The choice, the official said, was bringing “Brittney Griner home right now or no American home from Russia right now.”

Biden made the “difficult decision” to accept the deal. Senior US government officials visited Whelan’s sister to “share and talk through” the news. Another senior US official spoke at length Thursday with Whelan himself, still in a Russian prison. 

The US has proposed multiple options to Russia to secure Whelan’s release, the officials said, and believes Moscow remains open to talks.

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