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Inside the Griner Prisoner Swap

Brittney Griner
WNBA star Brittney Griner returned to the U.S. on Thursday as part of a prisoner swap after 294 days in Russian detention. Photo: Oliver Contreras/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
December 8, 2022

Early on a bright Thursday morning, Brittney Griner stood at the penal colony gates, her bags packed, breathing fog in the winter frost of Mordovia, a Russian region east of Moscow where most of the local economy depends on the penal colonies that dominate the landscape. Griner stood waiting for a transfer, apparently not knowing where she was being taken, a common practice in Russia when moving prisoners around. The prison guards cheerfully saw her off. “Will you come back here? Yes?” they asked Griner, as if talking to a small child. “Good job! Come back!” Then Griner got into a van, which took her to a plane. And if video of the event released by the F.S.B. is to be believed, it was only when the plane was in the air that Griner was told where she was being taken: home. 

Long before Griner was swapped for arms dealer Viktor Bout on an Abu Dhabi tarmac, this was the trade that had been anticipated in Washington. Still, for months, my sources in the White House and State Department remained deeply pessimistic about any deal going through. With the war in Ukraine and the Russian army suffering defeat after defeat at the hands of a Western-armed Ukraine, Moscow seemed in no mood to negotiate. Russians would leak stuff to the press about various configurations of a prisoner swap before talking to Washington, which absolutely infuriated the Biden administration.