February 3, 2023

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In the prisoner swap that freed Brittney Griner

Within days, plans were finalized for two planes to take off – one from Moscow, where Ms. Griner had been posted, and another from the United States carrying Mr. Bout.

A question to be clarified: where to make the exchange? During the Cold War and only during the Russian-American espionage exchange in 2010 under President Barack Obama, prisoners were exchanged in the middle of Europe: The Glienicker Bridge in Potsdam, Germany, made famous by the Tom Hanks film “Bridge of the Spies” or in Vienna, as at the 2010 fair.

But because of American and European sanctions imposed on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine in February, Moscow was unwilling to send a plane anywhere in Europe for fear it might be seized. Even long-neutral Switzerland had joined sanctions against Russia, while Helsinki, Finland — a key Russo-American meeting point during the Cold War — was no longer acceptable because the country joined NATO.

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

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

Once he landed, his clemency document was finalized and the exchange continued, captured in grainy video circulated by Russian state media. It showed Ms. Griner and Mr. Bout being led into the middle of a dusty tarmac, accompanied by officials from their countries. After a brief stop, Ms. Griner was led off in one direction while Mr. Bout, with Russian officials, went in another direction.

Mr. Biden and Cherelle Griner celebrated in front of 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 wasn’t coming home, at least not yet.

Neil MacFarquhar contributed reports from Paris and Anton Troianovski from Moscow.