Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s surprise announcement last July lacked any detail, but its meaning was crystal clear.
In a rare comment on secret talks, he said the Biden administration had made a “substantial proposal” to Russia to end the imprisonment of two Americans: WNBA star Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.
The message was plain, for those closely following the cases:
To get Griner and Whelan home, the U.S. would agree to the release of Viktor Bout, an imprisoned Russian arms dealer with the ominous nickname of “the Merchant of Death.” The Russians had made no secret of their desire to get Bout home.
On Thursday, Bout and Griner began their journeys home after a dramatic one-for-one swap. Yet Whelan remains imprisoned in Russia. The deal wasn’t all that U.S. officials had wanted. But after months of difficult private negotiations and angry public accusations, it was, they concluded, the best they could get.
It came together in the past few days after the administration grudgingly accepted that though the Russians would not budge on Whelan, they were prepared to relent on Griner, creating imperfect but ultimately workable options for a U.S. government under pressure to make a deal.
“This was not a choice for us on which American to bring home. It was a choice between bringing home one American or none,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive who had regularly traveled to Russia, was arrested in December 2018 while visiting Moscow for a friend’s wedding. He was convicted of espionage charges that he and the U.S. government say are baseless and is serving a 16-year prison sentence.
“For totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s, and while we have not succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up,” Biden said Thursday.
Griner’s arrest in February on drug possession charges made her instantaneously the most high-profile American jailed abroad. Her status as a gay Black woman, her prominence in women’s basketball and her imprisonment at a time of war combined for an unusual confluence of storylines in sports, politics and diplomacy.
For weeks, the focus seemed to center on legal aspects of the case and questions of her guilt or innocence. But that changed in May after the U.S. designated her a wrongful detainee, a move that placed her case with the government’s top hostage negotiator and came just after a separate prisoner swap between the U.S. and Russia.
Griner’s guilty plea last summer and nine-year prison sentence made it clear her best hope for release was through a prisoner swap. Blinken’s public reveal of a “substantial proposal” created speculation of who beyond Bout, a notorious arms dealer serving a 25-year sentence, the U.S. might be willing to release in a two-for-two exchange — and who else Russia might want.
Lawyers for Alexander Vinnik, an accused Russian cryptocurrency launderer recently extradited to California, advanced his client’s name to officials in Russia and the U.S., but he was ultimately left out of Thursday’s deal.
“We think that he is a good candidate, remains a good candidate,” said one of Vinnik’s lawyers, David Rizk. “He’s somebody that both sides have a lot of interest in, and he’s also somebody who hasn’t killed anybody. He hasn’t committed any violent crime.”
A senior administration official, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House, said Thursday that the U.S. “explored a wide range of alternatives and permutations that we felt were, frankly, quite generous in resolving both cases.” The official did not elaborate.
Throughout the fall, there were few signs of progress, with U.S. officials repeatedly saying that Russia had yet to respond in good faith to their offer. Blinken spoke by phone to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in July in the highest-level known contact between the two sides since Russia invaded Ukraine, but Russian officials gave no hint that headway had been made.
As U.S. officials talked directly with Russian counterparts, Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and top deputy Mickey Bergman held backchannel discussions in Russia and other countries with their own contacts to try to find middle ground.
“We were aiming, working together, for a two-for-two but I think the geopolitical situation prevented us from doing the two-for-two – in other words, the increasingly hostile relationship” between the countries, Richardson said in an interview.
Back in Washington, officials were repeatedly stressing the extent to which the U.S. viewed the cases of Griner and Whelan through the same lens and with the same urgency. In September, Biden hosted Griner’s wife, Cherelle, and Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth, for separate meetings at the White House.
But the reality, administration officials now say, is that Russia viewed Whelan’s case differently, with one official saying Moscow “put him through sham proceedings that convicted him of trumped-up espionage charges.” Russia, the official said, had “rejected each and every one of our proposals for his release.”
A potential thaw for Griner was evident in recent weeks. Biden told reporters after the midterm U.S. elections that he was hopeful Russia would now be more willing to negotiate her release. A Russian official said last week a deal was possible by the end of the year.
Progress escalated this week. Cherelle Griner was invited to the White House for a meeting with national security adviser Jake Sullivan, and she was with Biden Thursday morning when he was notified Griner was secure.
Brittney Griner was put through to the Oval Office and Biden said, “It’s Joe Biden. Welcome, welcome home!” one official said of the conversation.
In anticipation of the transfer, Griner was relocated from the Russian penal colony where she arrived last month and was flown to the United Arab Emirates for the transfer. Arriving there, too, was Bout, who was not presented with his official clemency paperwork until U.S. officials knew Griner was also present.
The deal brought a joyful end to an agonizing wait for Cherelle Griner, who in June told The Associated Press how a phone mixup by the U.S. government left her unable to connect with her wife on the couple’s four-year wedding anniversary. Just two months ago she said her wife was at her “absolute weakest moment in life right now.”
The final outcome was less joyful for the Whelan family, though they said they supported the administration’s action. Elizabeth Whelan was visited in Massachusetts by a U.S. official bearing the news. Paul Whelan himself was also briefed by the administration.
“To realize now that not only didn’t it include him, but also that there may not be any other things that the U.S. currently has control over that could bring Paul home — that’s a new thing to be thinking about,” brother David Whelan said in an interview.