WNBA star Brittney Griner was freed by Russia on Thursday in exchange for an infamous arms dealer who schemed to kill US pilots in Colombia — sparking outrage from critics who blasted the deal and called it a “surrender” by President Biden.
The 6-foot-9 basketball player — missing her iconic dreadlocks following nearly 10 months in Russian custody — was traded for “Merchant of Death” Viktor Bout on the tarmac of an Abu Dhabi airport in a dramatic scene reminiscent of Cold War prisoner swaps.
“She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home,” Biden said at the White House, where he was joined by Griner’s wife, Cherelle.
But the controversial deal left ex-Marine Paul Whelan languishing in a Russian prison on what the US has called baseless espionage charges.
“I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here,” Whelan told CNN from the penal colony where he’s being held.
“I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four-year anniversary of my arrest is coming up,” Whelan, 53, told CNN.
“My bags are packed. I’m ready to go home. I just need an airplane to come and get me.”
Former White House national security adviser and American ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton also blasted the exchange.
“This is not a deal. This is not a swap. This is a surrender,” he told CBS News.
“And terrorists and rogue states all around the world will take note of this, and it endangers other Americans in the future who can be grabbed and used as bargaining chips by people who don’t have the same morals and scruples that we do.”
In other developments:
- The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia said Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed — blamed by the US for the 2018 slaying and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey — played a key role in the negotiations.
- Russian video showed Bout embracing his fellow Russians at the airport, then reportedly talking to his mother on a cellphone while winging his way home.
- Russians gloated online, with parliament member Maria Butina — who served an 18-month sentence in the US for acting as an unregistered foreign agent — invoking “The Godfather” movie and saying her country “made them an offer that cannot be refused.”
Griner, 32, was arrested at a Russian airport on Feb. 17 and accused of smuggling vape cartridges containing less than a gram of cannabis oil.
The bust took place a week before Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his deadly invasion of Ukraine, leading to speculation the eight-time all-star center for the Phoenix Mercury was intended for use as leverage against the US.
Griner was convicted on Aug. 4 and sentenced to nine years in prison, a move Biden called “unacceptable” in a statement that also said, “My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”
Bout, 55, was called “international arms trafficking enemy No. 1” by then-Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara, who said he fueled “some of the most violent conflicts around the globe” before being busted in a sting operation in Thailand in 2008.
In 2012, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for conspiring to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons to Marxist terrorists in Colombia, including surface-to-air missiles and more than 20,000 AK-47 rifles.
The evidence included a secretly recorded conversation during which Bout was told the missiles would be used to attack US helicopters and kill American pilots.
“We have the same enemy,” he replied.
New York Mayor Adams’ chief counsel, Brendan McGuire, was one of the federal terrorism prosecutors who convinced a Manhattan jury to find Bout guilty.
McGuire declined to comment on his release, City Hall said.
Bolton called swapping Bout for Griner “a huge victory for Moscow over Washington” and said it “shows just how desperate the administration was to make this deal.”
Bolton also said that “the possibility of a Bout-for-Whelan trade existed” when he was then-President Donald Trump’s national security adviser.
“And it wasn’t made, for very good reasons having to deal with Viktor Bout,” he said.
Trump, 76, also questioned Biden’s decision to free “one of the biggest arms dealers anywhere in the world” in a Truth Social post on Thursday, claiming Bout was “responsible for tens of thousands of deaths and horrific injuries.”
“Why wasn’t former Marine Paul Whelan included in this totally one-sided transaction? He would have been let out for the asking,” the former president said. “What a ‘stupid’ and unpatriotic embarrassment for the USA!!!”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) tweeted that releasing Bout was “a gift to Vladimir Putin, and it endangers American lives. Leaving Paul Whelan behind for this is unconscionable.”
Even in the sports world, the trade was seen as one-sided for Russia.
In response to the Cowboys’ Parson’s outrage over the exchange, former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason said on his WFAN show, “I’m telling you, more people feel that way than don’t.”
“It’s not an even swap – it’s not. We all know what happened to Brittney should have never happened. But man, we look so pathetic,” he said.
In a joint statement, the Saudi and UAE ministries of foreign affairs said bin Salman and UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed brokered the deal, calling it “a reflection of the mutual and solid friendship between their two countries and the United States of America and the Russian Federation.”
Biden didn’t mention the Saudis during his remarks but thanked the UAE “for helping us facilitate Brittney’s return because that’s where she landed.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre also said, “The only country that actually negotiated this deal was the United States and Russia.”
Additional reporting by Mark Moore, Jeremy Layton and Ariel Zilber