Brittney Griner arrives in US after Russian prisoner swap: Live updates

WASHINGTON — Month after month, as U.S. diplomats pressed for the release of Brittney Greener and Paul Whelan from Russian prisons, they received the same infuriating response: If you want both prisoners, we do Vadim Krasikov as part of the deal.

Mr. Krasikov is an assassin who killed a Chechen fighter in a Berlin park in broad daylight in 2019, a brazen killing that German authorities say was carried out at the behest of Russian intelligence services. Convicted and sentenced to life in prison in Germany, Mr. Krasikov was not in American custody to be sold to Russia.

According to the Americans, this is hardly a viable request for a an exchange that will include Ms. GreenerWNBA star and Mr. Whelan, a former US Marine, who were detained on charges that Biden administration officials believed to be trumped up. American officials groped their German counterparts to see if they could agree, and were hardly surprised when Berlin refused to release what they thought was a cold-blooded killer. Trying to be creative, the Americans even explored some sort of tripartite deal that would give the Germans something in return, but that too went nowhere.

Privately, some administration diplomats have concluded that the push for Mr. Krasikov’s release is a delay tactic by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who they say is determined not to secure any political victory for President Biden before the United States midterm elections. last month. Others believed the Russians were serious and saw it as a salvo for Moscow’s security services to hand over Mr Whelan, whom they accused of espionage despite staunch denials from Washington that he was a spy.

Either way, how Mr. Biden agreed to a swap that freed Ms. Greener but not Mr. Whelan was a story of feints and scheming carried out through secret negotiations and public performance, all against the backdrop of a brutal a war in which American-armed Ukrainians fought Russian invaders. At the end of the day, according to senior U.S. officials directly involved in the negotiations, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe delicate diplomacy, it left the president with the unpleasant choice of freeing one American while leaving another behind.

Ms. Greener arrived in the United States early Friday, landing in San Antonio, where she will receive medical examinations at Brooke Army Medical Center and be reunited with her family, a relief for Mr. Biden and his team. Mr. Whelan remains in a grim Russian prison, his long-term fate unknown as his distraught family waits and as the president vows to redouble efforts to bring him home.

In Moscow on Friday, Mr Putin said Russia was continuing to communicate with US officials and that “everything is possible” regarding further prisoner exchanges. American officials made a similar announcement, vowing to continue negotiations in the hope of bringing Mr. Whelan home as soon as possible.

The two imprisoned Americans offered different cases that were eventually linked and then dropped. Ms Greener, detained on minor drug charges a week before Russia invaded Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, had been held hostage amid a standoff with the West over the conflict. Mr Whelan, a former US Marine, has been in prison since 2018 on espionage charges long before the war in Ukraine.

The outlines of a possible agreement were on the table as early as last spring. Working through intelligence agencies, the Russians made it clear they were willing to trade Ms. Greener for Viktor Bout, a prominent Russian arms dealer who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and is serving a 25-year sentence in an American prison. But they did not want to include Mr. Whelan in the package deal.

Mr Bout was important to the Russians because of his links to the security services. Although he is not known to be close to Mr. Putin, American officials said, Mr. Bout has connections in Russian power structures. And Russia has made a martyr of Mr. Bout over the last 14 years; his release will allow Mr. Putin to boast that he has finally brought a patriot home.

To the Russians, the exchange of Ms. Greener with Mr. Booth was a swap of two criminals, according to American officials. Mr. Whelan, on the other hand, was supposed to be an American agent, according to Russian statements, so only another agent or someone of equal importance would deserve to betray him. At the moment, the Americans do not have a Russian spy to trade. And here Mr. Krasikov appeared.

Mr. Krasikov, who called himself Vadim A. Sokolov, was arrested after two witnesses saw him throw his bicycle and bag into the Spree River after shooting twice at the victim, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a Chechen separatist commander who was fighting against Russian forces in early 2000 and was designated a terrorist by Russian state media. Police divers later found a Glock 26 pistol in the river in Central Park.

Frustrated by a swap request they could not make, US officials broke with long-standing tradition by telling reporters they had made a “substantial” offer to the Russians, making it clear that Mr Biden would trade Mr Booth for Ms. Greener and Mr. Whelan. They hoped public pressure would make the Russians drop their insistence on Mr. Krasikov and strike a deal.

It didn’t – for many months.

But just after election day in the United States, Russian contacts sent a new message, raising the possibility that Mr. Whelan would be cut out of the deal and instead focus exclusively on Ms. Greener. If that were the case, the Russians said, Moscow might accept Mr. Bout as a fair deal.

The difference in their crimes was vast: Mr. Booth was an illegal arms dealer to some of the world’s most violent powers, including some intent on killing Americans; Ms Griner was arrested for traveling with vape cartridges containing hashish oil. But it was the first time the Russians had made what American diplomats believed was a real counteroffer if they were serious about going through with it.

At the White House, the opportunity sparked a series of high-level meetings and discussions, some of which included Mr. Biden, about whether to test whether the Russians were serious about making a one-to-one deal, like they had months earlier in swap that released Trevor Reed, another incarcerated American.

The situation was volatile and uncertain. Even as they discussed their options, Mr Whelan’s family said publicly that he had missed two calls with them, prompting concerns for his safety and reports that he had been moved from his prison to a hospital in Russia.

Had the Russians done something to Mr. Whelan? That could make a deal for Ms. Greener impossible, but it would also seem unlikely, given that the Russians now seemed eager to do a deal. For days, work on a potential deal for Ms. Greener was stalled as Americans tried to figure out what happened. Officers eventually found Mr Whelan had been taken back to prison and he called his family.

In an Oval Office meeting early last week, Mr. Biden was ready to sign. The Justice Department opposed the deal, communicating its objections through national security adviser Jake Sullivan. But the department has a policy of opposing the trafficking of prisoners everywhere, arguing that it undermines the American justice system. The State Department, on the other hand, recommended the deal, as did other officials who concluded that the deal from the Russians would never change, so it was time to accept it. The president agreed.

But careful negotiations almost broke down a few days later, as did Mr. Biden hosted French President Emmanuel Macron for a state dinner in the White House. A CBS News reporter contacted the White House to report that the administration was preparing to swap Ms. Greener for Mr. Booth.

Premature disclosure, officials feared, would likely scuttle the deal. They asked the network to stop. According to CBS, she “agreed to a White House request to withhold the report because officials expressed serious concerns about the instability of the then-emerging deal.”

With that decision, officials moved forward. Armed with the president’s green light, they pressed their Russian counterparts: Are you serious? The answer came faster than American diplomats expected, and was more emphatic. Yes, they said. The day after the state dinner, Mr. Biden signed an executive order to pardon Mr. Booth, but put it on hold while aides set the transfer in motion.

Wary of undermining the deal, American diplomats cautiously made a final appeal to Mr. Whelan, asking the Russians if there was anyone other than Mr. Krasikov they would want in exchange for both Mr. Whelan and Ms. Greener. They got a firm no, but the Russians did not use the effort as an excuse to back out of the developing deal for Ms. Greener.

Within days, plans were set for two planes to take off – one from Moscow, where Ms. Greener had been transferred, and another from the United States, with Mr. Booth.

One question to resolve: Where do I do the exchange? In the days of the Cold War, and even more recently after the Russian-American spy swap in 2010 under President Barack Obama, prisoners were exchanged in the middle of Europe: the Glinike Bridge in Potsdam, Germany, made famous in the Tom Hanks film The Bridge of spies’, or in Vienna, as in the 2010 trade.

But because of US and European sanctions imposed on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine in February, Moscow has been reluctant to send the plane anywhere in Europe for fear it could be captured. Even long-neutral Switzerland had sanctioned Russia, while Helsinki, Finland – a key site for Russian-American meetings during the Cold War – was no longer acceptable because the country joining NATO.

The compromise became the United Arab Emirates, a small Gulf state that is friendly with Washington and Moscow. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the president of the Emirates, had raised Ms Greener’s case with Mr Putin during a meeting in October and so the Emirates were happy to facilitate the transfer. Arrangements were made: both countries would send planes to Abu Dhabi, the capital.

Cheryl Greener, Mrs. Greener’s wife, was invited to the White House Thursday morning to meet with Mr. Sullivan for an update. When she arrived, however, Mr. Sullivan surprised her by taking her into the Oval Office, where Mr. Biden broke the news that Ms. Greener was coming home. At the time, Ms Greener was on the ground in Abu Dhabi, while Mr Booth’s plane was 30 minutes away.

After landing, his pardon document was finalized and the exchange continued, captured in grainy video released by Russian state media. It showed Ms Greener and Mr Booth being led to the middle of a dusty tarmac, escorted by officials from their countries. After a brief stop, Ms. Greener was led in one direction while Mr. Booth left with Russian officials in another.

Mr. Biden and Cheryl Greener celebrated in front of the cameras in the Oval Office. But after the reporters were ushered out, the president had another, more somber task: He had to call Mr. Whelan’s sister to explain why he wasn’t coming home, at least not yet.

Neil McFarquhar contributed reporting from Paris. Anton Troyanovski contributed reporting from Moscow.

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