Three weeks ago, the American basketball star Brittney Griner arrived at a Russian penal colony known for torture, beatings and slave labour to begin a nine-year sentence following her arrest at a Moscow airport in February for possession of vaping cartridges containing hashish oil.
But in a stunning twist on Thursday, Griner’s plight as an unwitting pawn in a high-stakes geopolitical struggle came to an abrupt end, as she arrived in Abu Dhabi from Moscow and boarded a plane home to reunite with her family. She landed in San Antonio, Texas, early Friday morning.
In exchange for Griner’s release, the US released Viktor Bout, a notorious arms trafficker who was serving a 25-year sentence for conspiring to kill US citizens and aiding a terrorist organisation.
The deal was met with jubilation from Griner’s family and supporters. But the controversial swap for Bout — as well as the exclusion of Paul Whelan, another US citizen imprisoned in Russia — also drew criticism and raised questions about how America’s adversaries might leverage arrests of its citizens in the future.
US officials began working toward Griner’s release as soon as she was apprehended in Russia in February, but the effort became more concentrated on prisoner swap negotiations once the State Department declared in May that she had been wrongfully detained.
In July, US secretary of state Antony Blinken and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov spoke on the phone for the first time since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February. During the call, Blinken pressed Lavrov to accept a “substantial proposal” from Washington to release Griner and the former marine Whelan, who has been detained in Russia since 2018 on what the US and his family say are trumped-up espionage charges.
Americans had offered to free Bout, people familiar with the discussions said, but the Russians said they also wanted the release of Vadim Krasikov, a former colonel from Russia’s domestic spy agency who was convicted of murder in Germany last year.
In the ensuing months, officials said, Washington made a number of offers to Russia in an attempt to secure the release of Griner and Whelan.
However, Biden administration officials said that in recent weeks it became clear that Moscow would only accept a one-for-one swap. According to one senior administration official, “the choice was bringing Brittney Griner home right now or bringing no Americans home from Russia right now”.
Despite the Biden administration’s insistence that they had no choice but to exclude Whelan from the deal, Republican lawmakers and others denounced the decision, as well as facilitating the release of Bout, who is also known as “the merchant of death”.
“The Biden administration has allowed Viktor Bout, a dangerous arms dealer who was convicted of conspiring to kill American law enforcement, to walk free,” said Mike Rogers, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.
“This move to appease Vladimir Putin will only encourage further hostage taking by Russian security forces,” he added.
US officials described Biden’s choice as a painful one, adding that they would continue to work for Whelan’s release. Washington previously secured the release of Trevor Reed, another former marine, via a prisoner swap in April.
People familiar with Thursday’s prisoner exchange likened the episode to “a scene from the Cold War”, with Russian and American planes meeting on the tarmac at an airport in Abu Dhabi.
The Russian plane carrying Griner arrived first, one of the people said. American officials and people familiar with the events said the basketball star was upbeat on the tarmac, saying she was looking forward to returning home.
The Griner-Bout swap marks a rare instance in which the US and Russia have been able to find common ground since Putin ordered the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, sending the west’s relationship with Moscow to its lowest ebb since the Cuban missile crisis.
According to people familiar with the matter, the Americans and Russians directly negotiated the details of the swaps, with UAE officials including president Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan helping to facilitate the mechanics of the transfer.
It is not unusual for third countries to aid in brokering international diplomatic agreements such as prisoner swaps between hostile countries.
Sheikh Mohammed and Putin discussed the matter when they met in Russia in October, and they spoke on the phone on Wednesday, people familiar with the meetings said. Yousef al-Otaiba, UAE ambassador to the US, was present for the exchange on Thursday and had helped to co-ordinate details on the American side.
On Thursday, some pro-Kremlin commentators hailed the swap as a return to diplomacy. “Everyone sees through this exchange that Moscow and Washington are holding secret negotiations and can make a deal,” Sergei Markov, a political scientist and former member of Russia’s parliament, wrote on Telegram. “And everyone hopes that means Moscow and Washington can make a deal to end the war in Ukraine.”
However, analysts and US officials said that while the breakthrough was a sign that the two sides could get things done when their interests align, it was not evidence of any larger thaw in relations. Biden administration officials added that the recent conversations with Russia about Griner and other prisoners were limited to the release of wrongfully detained Americans.
“The exchange doesn’t do anything to change the situation for bilateral relations. There are lots of issues where they are in open confrontation,” said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
He said the otherwise dire state of relations between Russia and the west was thrown into sharp relief last week, when Moscow abruptly pulled out of talks on renewing the New Start treaty, the only remaining agreement governing the countries’ nuclear arsenals.
“This is a global stability issue: the last remainders of arms control are falling apart, which could lead to an arms race and a higher risk of dangerous incidents,” he said. “The trajectory we’re on is making that all the more likely.”