After her release from a Russian penal colony on Thursday, Brittney Griner didn’t want to decompress or relax upon boarding the plane that would bring her back to the United States. “I have been in prison for 10 months now, listening to Russian,” she said, according to Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens. “I want to talk.” In an interview with CNN’s Dana Bash, the US diplomat described how the two-time Olympic gold medalist spent 12 hours of the 18-hour flight engaging in conversations. “She moved right past me and went to every member on that crew, looked them in the eyes, shook their hands and asked about them, got their names, making a personal connection with them,” Carstens told Bash. “It was really amazing.”
Griner’s release came after the Biden administration secured a deal with Russia in exchange for freeing Viktor Bout, an infamous arms dealer known as the Merchant of Death who was sentenced to 25 years in prison for charges of conspiring to kill Americans. Griner had been arrested at a Moscow airport in February on accusations that she was carrying vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage. The US government has maintained that the Phoenix Mercury star was wrongfully detained.
“I was left with the impression this is an intelligent, passionate, compassionate, humble, interesting person, a patriotic person,” Carstens said. “But above all, authentic. I hate the fact that I had to meet her in this manner, but I actually felt blessed having had a chance to get to know her.”
The athlete’s release sparked an outcry from right-wing media and politicians claiming her freedom shouldn’t have been prioritized over other American prisoners. Newsmax and Fox News hosts repeated the same line that Whelan, who has been in Russian custody since 2018 and was sentenced to 16 years in prison over espionage charges, has fallen victim to identity politics for being a white, straight man.
Meanwhile, Whelan’s family members expressed support for Griner’s release. “The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen,” his brother said in a statement. Speaking to Newsmax, Whelan’s sister Elizabeth lamented her brother being left behind but said “any time a wrongfully detained American comes home that’s a win.”
On Sunday morning, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said the government continues to negotiate Whelan’s release. “As we progressed through this summer and into the fall… it was clear that they were treating Paul very separately, very distinctly because of these sham espionage charges they levied against him,” Kirby told ABC. “It really occurred to us that there was just no chance of doing it last week… we had been trying all the way up until the moment we actually secured the deal that got Brittney home, we were still trying to get Paul out.”