President Joe Biden signed off on the trade, which took place in the United Arab Emirates, even though it meant leaving behind Paul Whelan, an American corporate security executive who remains jailed in Russia.
The move marks one of the most high-profile prisoner swaps between Moscow and Washington since the Cold War, with the Kremlin seeing the return of Viktor Bout, who Russian President Vladimir Putin has been wanting to get back — and who had served 11 years of a 25-year sentence in the United States.
Griner’s return to the United States will cap a monthslong saga that began in February when she was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport after Russian authorities said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. She was later jailed on drug charges.
The 32-year-old Phoenix Mercury player was the subject of prolonged and often public negotiations between the two countries after a trial that underscored frayed relations amid Russia’s war in Ukraine. Biden’s administration had sought the release of both Griner and Whelan.
“I’m telling you, I am determined to get her home and get her home safely — along with others, I might add,” Biden said of the situation on Nov. 9.
Whelan is serving a 16-year prison sentence after being accused of spying, which the U.S. has denied. People familiar with the negotiations for his release say the Russians refused to release Whelan without getting a Russian spy in return. The U.S. insists it does not have any Russian spies in its custody, and thus no one to trade to meet the Kremlin’s demand.
During her trial in July, Griner pleaded guilty but said she had no criminal intent. Griner said the canisters, which she had been prescribed to treat chronic pain, were packed inadvertently as she hurriedly prepared for her flight.
As her trial neared its end in early August, it became public that the U.S. put a prisoner swap offer on the table for Moscow to consider. Russia called for “quiet diplomacy” but said after her sentencing that it was ready to discuss a deal.
NBC News reported in July that the U.S. proposed a prisoner exchange with Russia for the release of Griner and Whelan, who has been detained since 2018. That deal, two sources familiar with the matter confirmed at the time, would have included the U.S. releasing Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death” because he was considered one of the world’s largest illicit arms dealers.