January 28, 2023

The Biden administration was ultimately willing to exchange Bout if it meant Griner’s freedom. The detention of one of the greatest players in WNBA history contributed to a swirl of unprecedented public attention on an individual detainee case — not to mention intense pressure on the White House.

Griner’s arrest in February made her the most high-profile American imprisoned abroad. Her status as an openly gay black woman locked in a country where authorities are hostile to the LBGTQ community brought racial, gender and social dynamics to her legal narrative and made any development a matter of international concern.

Brittney Griner’s wife Cherelle Griner was in the Oval Office when Joe Biden spoke to Brittney on the phone.Credit:AP

Her case not only generated unprecedented publicity among the dozens of Americans wrongfully detained by foreign governments, but also emerged as a major turning point in U.S.-Russian diplomacy at a time of deteriorating relations following the war of Moscow vs Ukraine.

The exchange took place despite deteriorating relations between the powers. But the capture of Americans sparked a rare diplomatic opening, producing the highest known contact between Washington and Moscow — a phone call between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov — in more than five months.

In an extraordinary move during otherwise secret negotiations, Blinken publicly revealed in July that the US had made a “substantial proposal” to Russia for Griner and Whelan. Although he did not specify the terms, people familiar with it said the US had offered Bout.

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Such a public overture drew rebuke from the Russians, who said they preferred to resolve such matters privately, and risked weakening the US government’s negotiating position for this and future deals by making the administration appear too desperate. But the announcement was also meant to signal to the public that Biden was doing what he could and to put pressure on the Russians.

In addition to the efforts of US officials, the release also followed months of back-channel negotiations with Bill Richardson, the former US ambassador to the United Nations and a frequent emissary in hostage talks, and his deputy Mickey Bergman. The men had made several trips abroad in the past year to discuss exchange scenarios with Russian contacts.

Griner was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport in February when customs officials said they found cannabis oil vape canisters in her luggage. She pleaded guilty in July, though she still had to face trial because in the Russian court system, pleading guilty does not automatically end a case.

She admitted in court that she owned the buses but said she had no criminal intent and said their presence in her luggage was due to hasty packing.

Before she was sentenced on August 4 and given a sentence that her lawyers said was inappropriate for the offense, an emotional Griner apologized “for my mistake I made and the embarrassment I caused them.” She added, “I hope your statement doesn’t end my life.”

Her supporters had remained largely silent for weeks after her arrest, but that approach changed in May when the State Department labeled her unlawfully detained. A separate transaction, Navy veteran Trevor Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot convicted in the US of a cocaine trafficking conspiracy, raised hopes that more such exchanges could be in the works.

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Whelan has been detained in Russia since December 2018. The US government also classified him as unjustly detained. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020.

Whelan was not involved in Reed’s prisoner exchange, which increased pressure on the Biden administration to ensure that whatever deal Griner brought home included him.