US, Russia Agree to Swap Britney Griner for Viktor Bout

The White House denies that Saudi Arabia mediated the deal

The Biden administration has secured the release of WNBA star Britney Griner from Russia in a prisoner exchange for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who was serving a 25-year sentence in the US.

Griner was arrested in Russia on February 17 on a drug charge for the possession of cannabis oil in vape cartridges. In August, she was sentenced to nine years in prison, but President Biden said Thursday that she’s on her way home.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said that Bout has already returned to Russia. “As a result of the efforts made, we managed to agree with the American side to arrange an exchange of Viktor Bout for Brittney Griner. The Russian citizen has been returned to his homeland,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

Bout was first arrested in 2008 in a US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) sting operation in Bangkok, Thailand. He was extradited to the US in 2010 and sentenced in 2012.

In a joint statement, Saudi Arabia and the UAE said the swap was brokered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, but the White House denied the claim. “The only countries that negotiated this deal were the United States and Russia,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

Griner and Bout were exchanged at the Abu Dhabi airport in the UAE, and Jean-Pierre thanked the UAE for allowing its territory to be used for the swap. She also thanked Saudi Arabia for raising the issue of detained Americans with Russia but insisted the countries didn’t mediate the deal.

Biden has come under criticism for the deal because he failed to secure the release of Paul Whelan, a former US Marine. Whelan was arrested on spying charges in Moscow in 2018 with a USB that contained classified information and was handed a 16-year sentence in 2020.

Whelan maintains his innocence and says the USB was planted on him. When the Bout swap was initially discussed by Biden officials, Whelan was expected to be freed along with Griner, but the administration couldn’t secure both releases. “We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan,” Biden said Thursday. “We will keep negotiating in good faith for Paul’s release.”

The deal is the first diplomatic breakthrough between the US and Russia since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, although Biden administration officials have made clear that the prisoner swap is an entirely separate issue from the war. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has only held one known phone call with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, since February, and the discussion was focused on the prisoner swap, not the war.

Author: Dave DeCamp

Dave DeCamp is the news editor of, follow him on Twitter @decampdave.