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Inside the Prisoner Swap That Freed Brittney Griner

WASHINGTON — Month after month, as American diplomats pushed for the release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan from Russian prisons, they received the same, infuriating answer: If you want both prisoners, we want Vadim Krasikov as part of the deal.

Mr. Krasikov is an assassin who murdered a Chechen fighter in a park in Berlin in broad daylight in 2019, a brazen killing that the German authorities say was committed at the behest of Russia’s intelligence services. Convicted and sentenced to life in prison in Germany, Mr. Krasikov was not in U.S. custody to be traded to Russia.

It was, the Americans thought, hardly a viable request for a swap that would include Ms. Griner, a W.N.B.A. star, and Mr. Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, who were being detained on what Biden administration officials considered trumped-up charges. American officials felt out their German counterparts to see if they might agree and were hardly surprised when Berlin refused to release what they considered a cold killer. Trying to be creative, the Americans even explored some sort of three-way deal that would give the Germans something in return, but that did not go anywhere, either.

Privately, some of the administration’s diplomats concluded that the insistence on freeing Mr. Krasikov was a stalling tactic by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who they believed was determined not to deliver any kind of political victory to President Biden before the midterm elections in the United States last month. Others believed the Russians were serious and saw it as a face-saving way for Moscow’s security services to give up Mr. Whelan, whom they convicted of espionage despite flat denials from Washington that he was a spy.

Either way, how Mr. Biden came to agree to a swap that freed Ms. Griner but not Mr. Whelan was a tale of feints and intrigue carried out through secret negotiations and public posturing, all against the backdrop of a brutal war in which American-armed Ukrainians were battling Russian invaders. At the end of the day, according to senior U.S. officials directly involved in the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe delicate diplomacy, it left the president with the unpalatable choice of liberating one American while leaving another behind.

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

The two Americans offered distinct cases that were eventually linked and then unlinked. Ms. Griner, detained on minor drug charges a week before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, was seen as a hostage in the midst of the confrontation with the West over the conflict. Mr. Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, had 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 far back as last spring. Interacting through intelligence agencies, the Russians made clear that they were willing to trade Ms. Griner for Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer arrested in Thailand in 2008 and serving a 25-year sentence in American prison. But they were not willing to include Mr. Whelan in the package deal.

Mr. Bout was important to the Russians because of his ties to the security services. While he is not known to be close to Mr. Putin, U.S. officials said, Mr. Bout has connections in the Russian power structures. And Russia had made a martyr out of Mr. Bout over the past 14 years; freeing him would allow Mr. Putin to boast about finally bringing a patriot home.

To the Russians, trading Ms. Griner for Mr. Bout was a swap of two criminals, according to U.S. officials. Mr. Whelan, on the other hand, was supposedly an American agent, in the Russian telling, and so only another agent or someone of equivalent importance would merit giving him up. The Americans do not currently have a Russian spy in custody to trade. And that is where Mr. Krasikov came in.

Mr. Krasikov, who called himself Vadim A. Sokolov, was arrested after two witnesses saw him throwing his bike and a bag into the Spree River after twice shooting the victim, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a Chechen separatist commander who fought against Russian forces in the early 2000s and was labeled a terrorist by Russian state media. Police divers later found a Glock 26 pistol in the river in the downtown park.

Frustrated by the demand for a swap they could not make, American officials broke with years of tradition by telling reporters that they had made a “substantial” offer to the Russians, making clear that Mr. Biden would trade Mr. Bout for Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan. They hoped the public pressure would move the Russians off their insistence for Mr. Krasikov and into a deal.

It did not — for many months.

But just after Election Day in the United States, Russian contacts delivered a new message, raising the possibility of excluding Mr. Whelan from a deal and instead focusing exclusively on Ms. Griner. If that were the case, the Russians said, Moscow might consider Mr. Bout a fair trade.

The disparity of their offenses was vast: Mr. Bout was an illegal arms merchant to some of the world’s most violent forces, including some intent on killing Americans; Ms. Griner was detained for traveling with vape cartridges containing hashish oil. But it was the first time that the Russians had made what the American diplomats considered a real counteroffer, if they were serious about following through.

At the White House, the possibility prompted a series of high-level meetings and discussions, some of which included Mr. Biden, about whether to test if the Russians were serious about making a one-for-one deal, much like they had months before in a swap that freed Trevor Reed, another imprisoned American.

The situation was fluid and uncertain. Even as they discussed their options, the family of Mr. Whelan said publicly that he had missed two calls with them, raising fears 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 have made a trade for Ms. Griner impossible, but also would have seemed unlikely given that it was the Russians who now seemed eager to make a deal. For days, work on the potential deal for Ms. Griner stalled as the Americans worked to figure out what had happened. Officials eventually determined that Mr. Whelan had been taken back to prison, and he called his family.

At a meeting in the Oval Office early last week, Mr. Biden was ready to sign off. The Justice Department had weighed in against the deal, communicating their objections through Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser. But the department makes a policy of opposing prisoner trades across the board, arguing that it undercuts 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 was never going to change and so it was time to take it. The president agreed.

The careful negotiations, however, almost unraveled a few days later, as Mr. Biden hosted President Emmanuel Macron of France for a state dinner at the White House. A journalist for CBS News contacted the White House with reporting that the administration was preparing to swap Ms. Griner for Mr. Bout.

Premature disclosure, officials feared, was likely to scuttle the deal. They asked the network to hold off. According to CBS, it “agreed to a White House request to hold the reporting because officials expressed grave concern about the fragility of the then-emerging deal.”

With that resolved, officials moved forward. Armed with the president’s go-ahead, they pressed their Russian counterparts: Are you serious about this? The answer came back more quickly that the American diplomats expected, and it was more definitive. Yes, they said.

Wary of undercutting the deal, the American diplomats carefully made one last appeal for Mr. Whelan, asking the Russians if there was anyone other than Mr. Krasikov whom they might want in exchange for both Mr. Whelan and Ms. Griner. They got a firm no, but the Russians did not use the effort as an excuse to back out of the developing arrangement for Ms. Griner.

Within days, plans were set for two planes to take off — one from Moscow, where Ms. Griner had been transferred, and another from the United States, with Mr. Bout. Still worried that the deal could fall apart at the last minute, Mr. Biden waited to sign Mr. Bout’s clemency until the last minute.

One question to resolve: Where to make the swap? In the Cold War days and even as recently as a Russian-American spy swap in 2010 under President Barack Obama, prisoners were exchanged in the middle of Europe: the Glienicke Bridge in Potsdam, Germany, as made famous in the Tom Hanks movie “Bridge of Spies,” or in Vienna, as with the 2010 trade.

But because of American and European sanctions imposed on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine in February, Moscow was not willing to send a plane anywhere in Europe for fear that it could be seized. Even long-neutral Switzerland had sanctioned Russia while Helsinki, Finland — a prime Russian-American meeting site during the Cold War — was no longer acceptable because the country is joining NATO.

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

Cherelle Griner, Ms. Griner’s wife, was invited to the White House on Thursday morning ostensibly to meet with Mr. Sullivan for an update. When she arrived, however, Mr. Sullivan surprised her by taking her to the Oval Office, where Mr. Biden broke the news that Ms. Griner was coming home. At that point, Ms. Griner was on the ground in Abu Dhabi, while Mr. Bout’s plane was 30 minutes out.

Once he landed, the swap was captured in grainy video distributed by Russian state media, showing Ms. Griner and Mr. Bout being walked to the middle of a dusty tarmac, escorted by officials of their countries. After a brief stop, Ms. Griner was led away in one direction, while Mr. Bout left with Russian officials in another.

Mr. Biden and Cherelle Griner celebrated before cameras in the Oval Office. But once the journalists were ushered out, the president had another, grimmer task: He had to call Mr. Whelan’s sister to explain why he was not coming home, at least not yet.

Neil MacFarquhar contributed reporting from Paris.

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