Brittney Griner chatted with airline crew, was ‘in good spirits’ after her release from Russia
“Brittney, you’ve had to go through a lot in the last 10 months,” Roger Carstens, the president’s special envoy for hostage affairs, told her on Sunday’s “State of the Union” from CNN.
“Here is your seat,” he added. “Feel free to unpack. We’ll give you your space.
But to her surprise, Griner told her she just wanted to talk.
“Oh, no, I’ve been in prison for 10 months and I listen to Russian,” he recalls.
Carstens said Griner then walked past him and approached all the flight crew members, “looked them in the eye, shook their hands and asked about them, got their names, establishing a personal connection with them”.
He said they ended up talking for about 12 hours on the 6 p.m. flight from the United Arab Emirates, where she was swapped for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
“We talked about everything under the sun,” Carstens said. “I got the impression that he is an intelligent, passionate, compassionate, humble, interesting, patriotic, but above all authentic person.”
Carstens’ account included new details of Griner’s return trip to the United States after his release from Russian captivity. Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport in February, just days before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops to invade Ukraine.
She was sentenced to nine and a half years in prison for drug trafficking for smuggling vaping cartridges containing a small amount of cannabis oil, which is illegal in Russia. His lawyers said it was prescribed to treat chronic pain and other conditions.
His sentence was close to the maximum for the offense under Russian law and was immediately denounced by the US Embassy in Moscow as “a miscarriage of justice”. In early July, Griner wrote a letter to President Biden imploring him to continue working for his release and that of others.
“As I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, my family, my friends, my Olympic jersey or any achievement, I am terrified of be here forever,” Griner wrote in an excerpt from the letter shared by the talent agency representing the Phoenix Mercury Center. “I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don’t forget me and the other American inmates.”
Viktor Bout Says He Wished Brittney Griner Luck During Prisoner Swap
Maria Blagovolina, one of Griner’s Russian lawyers, told ESPN last week that Griner, who is 6-foot-9, spent most of her working hours in a Russian prison moving rolls of fabric rather than sewing uniforms, like most of the other prisoners did. because it was too big for the sewing tables. She too was recovering from the flu. Griner recently cut off most of her hair because washing it in the winter left her feeling cold, Blagovolina said.
Griner landed in San Antonio on Friday and underwent physical and mental health evaluations at a medical center at Fort Sam Houston Army Base.
“Initial reports indicate that she is in very good spirits and in good health,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Griner’s return has drawn celebrations and praise, as well as criticism from Biden and his administration over the trade.
“I think people of good faith can, in good faith, ask questions and be concerned about it, even when we are very, very happy that Brittney Griner is back in the United States,” said Preet Bharara, former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District. of New York, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Bharara, a Democrat, was the prosecutor who oversaw Bout’s prosecution and sentencing.
Bout is “someone who was found guilty in a trial by a unanimous jury of conspiracy to kill Americans,” Bharara said. “He was found guilty of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists.”
But Bharara said he gives the Biden administration the benefit of the doubt on the decision to trade Bout. “He was a dangerous man then. I don’t know how dangerous he is now,” he said.
In releasing Griner, Biden faced resistance abroad and at home
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-California) said he’s “delighted” Griner is home, but fears the trade will inspire “other despots to basically grab an American and use them as currency for ‘exchange”. He also worried about how Putin might take advantage of future detentions of American citizens.
“He picks up an arms dealer. He also knows that he can simply upset the American body politic by choosing one. [American prisoner] send back to the United States and leave the others in custody in Russia,” Schiff said.
Griner’s release also sparked frustrations that Paul Whelan, a former Marine who was sentenced to 16 years in a Russian prison in 2020 after being convicted of espionage, was not also included in the exchange of prisoners.
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In July, the United States made a “substantial offer” to Russia to secure the release of Griner and Whelan together, but no deal was reached then. The White House said last week’s deal was not about “which American” to bring home, but rather whether to release Griner or no Americans at all.
Carstens said Sunday the United States remains focused on getting Whelan home. He said he spoke to the former Marine on Friday, telling him, “Keep the faith. We are coming to pick you up. Carstens declined to speak in detail about ongoing negotiations with Russia for Whelan’s release.
“Even if we welcome someone home, we still have work to do,” Carstens said. “So as I’m shaking hands with Brittney and we’re getting on the plane and having this great conversation, my brain is already thinking about Paul Whelan. What can we do to get him back? What’s our next step? What’s the next step? is the strategy, how can we adapt?
On Thursday, former national security adviser John Bolton told CBS News that the Trump administration, in which he served, had the option of trading Bout for Whelan, but was not interested. Bolton criticized the Griner-Bout swap as “not a swap” but a “surrender”.
“Terrorists and rogue states around the world will take notice, and it endangers other Americans in the future who can be caught and used as bargaining chips by people who don’t have the same morals and the same scruples we have,” Bolton said then.
Fiona Hill, the former Russia specialist for the National Security Council who worked in the Trump administration, confirmed that Russia made multiple efforts to secure Bout’s release in exchange for Whelan’s.
“President Trump wasn’t particularly interested in engaging in this exchange,” Hill said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “He wasn’t particularly interested in Paul’s case as one might think.”
Mary Ilyushina, Tim Starks and Lauren Kaori Gurley contributed to this report.