December 8, 2022 Brittney Griner and Russia-Ukraine news

By Kathleen Magramo, Sana Noor Haq, Eliza Mackintosh, Aditi Sangal, Adrienne Vogt, Maureen Chowdhury and Elise Hammond, CNN

Updated 3:00 AM ET, Fri December 9, 2022
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3:24 p.m. ET, December 8, 2022

Griner expected to land in San Antonio following release from Russian detention

From CNN's Kylie Atwood

After being released from Russian detention to US officials in Abu Dhabi, American basketball star Brittney Griner is flying back to the US and expected to land in San Antonio, Texas, a US official confirmed to CNN.

It is not clear when she is expected to land.

State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said that US officials will discuss with Griner “what she needs” when she arrives back in the US.

“She may seek the assistance that the US is going to provide, and we are going to make all of that available to her. How long she takes advantage of that assistance, that is a question for Brittney Griner, it is a question for Cherelle. But it is going to be an ongoing conversation we have with them,” Price said on MSNBC.

Trevor Reed and the seven Americans who returned from Venezuela in early October were brought to San Antonio, where they underwent a Department of Defense program known as PISA (Post Isolation Support Activities) meant to acclimate them back to normal life.

6:29 p.m. ET, December 8, 2022

Whelan's sister says she spoke to Biden

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

Elizabeth Whelan speaks with reporters in Washington, DC, on May 4.
Elizabeth Whelan speaks with reporters in Washington, DC, on May 4. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Elizabeth Whelan, the sister of detained US citizen Paul Whelan, spoke with President Joe Biden on Thursday afternoon. She told CNN it was a “good call.” She also spoke with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

She told CNN's Jake Tapper that people should not be divided over WNBA star Brittney Griner's release and that the criticism over the deal is "purposefully missing the nuance of what happens in negotiations over wrongful detainees."

"There should be no American standing against getting home a wrongfully detained American who is being held overseas, because hostile foreign countries are trying to start problems over here. They are trying to create dissension and difficulties. It may be one of the reasons why Brittney was held wrongfully in the first place. So, I would urge everyone to, you know, keep their partisan sniping out of it," she said.
"If they've got some better ideas on how this administration should be approaching getting people home, then I'm sure that the folks over at the NSC would be happy to hear what those ideas are. We need some unity here and everybody join together to help get my brother back."

Whelan said she does not believe her brother knows the full extent of the efforts to free him, noting the family has to be careful what they tell him because they assume the Russians are listening. 

Paul Whelan, in an exclusive call with CNN, said he was happy that Griner was released, but expressed disappointment in his continued Russian detention. “I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here,” he said by phone from the penal colony where he is being held in a remote part of Russia.

A senior administration official told reporters earlier that Elizabeth Whelan “was visited in person by a senior US government official to share and talk through at length the news about Brittney.”

“I would also emphasize that the president has made clear to the Whelan family that when they are ready, he is eager to personally convey his commitment to Paul’s case and his resolution to keep them informed of our efforts,” the official said.

3:22 p.m. ET, December 8, 2022

Donetsk and Kharkiv regions see heavy Russian attacks, according to Ukrainian military

From CNN's Tim Lister and Julia Kesaieva

The Ukrainian military said settlements in the eastern Donetsk region and northeastern Kharkiv region have come under heavy Russian fire.

"More than 20 attacks from [Russian] multiple rocket launchers [are] on the positions of our troops and settlements along the contact line," the military said.

The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said Russian forces were holding their lines along the border between the Kharkiv and Luhansk regions and had shelled nearly a dozen settlements in the course of the day. 

Oleh Syniehubov, head of the Kharkiv region military administration, told Ukrainian television that in northern parts of Kharkiv, towns recently taken back by Ukrainian forces near the Russian border were constantly being shelled, including in Vovchansk.

"Settlements close to the front line on Kupiansk sector are under constant shelling," he said, but insisted there was no prospect of a counteroffensive by the Russians. "We have enough forces and means in this and other areas to repel the enemy."

Further south, the Donetsk front lines continue to see heavy Russian shelling in nearly 20 areas, according to the military, especially around Bakhmut and Avdiivka. Battles in the region have become a war of attrition involving mortars, tank fire, artillery and explosives dropped from drones — with much of the countryside pockmarked with craters. Neither side has taken any meaningful territory in several months along that part of the front line.

The General Staff said that in the southern regions of Zaporizhzhia and Dnipropetrovsk, 22 settlements had come under fire, with two attacked by Russian aircraft. And there was also Russian tank and artillery shelling of nearly 20 settlements in recently liberated parts of Kherson region on the west bank of the Dnipro River.

Here's the latest map of control:

3:20 p.m. ET, December 8, 2022

Sen. Rubio says the Griner deal was a bad trade, despite relief she's coming home

From CNN's Ted Barrett

Sen. Marco Rubio speaks at a campaign rally in West Miami on October 9.
Sen. Marco Rubio speaks at a campaign rally in West Miami on October 9. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is the top Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, said the Biden administration cut a “bad deal” in securing Brittney Griner's release, while also expressing relief she has been free.

Rubio warned the deal will “incentivize the taking of more Americans around the world.”

“An American citizen who is a hostage was released is good news. I think the challenge this points to is, these regimes know this. This is why Maduro traded five Citgo executives — who were lured to Venezuela to get arrested — for his nephews who are convicted drug traffickers. That's why you trade a professional basketball player with (cannabis) oil for the Merchant of Death. These are bad trades,” Rubio said, referencing a prisoner swap involving US oil executives held by Venezualan leader Nicolas Maduro.

Asked by CNN if he would not have made this deal if he were president, Rubio said he hoped the deal with the Russians “would have been part of a broader arrangement that would have included every American that's being held hostage.”

“We have to recognize, even as we're happy in Americans coming home, it does incentivize the taking of more Americans around the world,” he said.

Rubio added that he thinks Griner will be “very grateful and have a greater appreciation for the greatness of this country and how special it is.”

Other Republican leaders also criticized the deal:

Florida congressman Mike Waltz told Fox News that he is "happy for the Griner family, but in the long-term, appeasing terrorists, appeasing dictatorships never works in the interests of the United States.”

Waltz was critical of the lack of a deal freeing Whelan.

“My heart breaks for the Whelan family,” he said. “What was his crime? Not being a celebrity? Not checking enough boxes for Hollywood? The fact that we left a US Marine behind and made this choice, and I don’t buy ... President Biden saying we didn’t have a choice.”

Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso echoed that sentiment in an interview with Fox Business.

"It’s absolutely wrong to leave the Marine there,” he said, referring to Paul Whelan. “He may not be forgotten but he’s still there.”

4:48 p.m. ET, December 8, 2022

Russian state media shows video of Griner and Bout boarding planes

From CNN's Radina Gigova

Brittney Griner is seen boarding a plane on Thursday.
Brittney Griner is seen boarding a plane on Thursday. (Russia TV)

Russian state television channel Russia 24 showed video on Thursday of Brittney Griner and Viktor Bout as they were boarding their planes as part of a prisoner swap. 

The video showed Griner leaving what the presenter said what was her place of detention. She then got into a van. The next clip showed Griner walking on a tarmac toward a plane, boarding the aircraft, showing her US passport and sitting down in one of the seats. 

Griner was asked, "are you ready for a flight?" and she replies, "yes," while smiling. 

Part of the footage showed Bout walking onto a tarmac, boarding a plane and sitting down inside. The footage was shot in Abu Dhabi, according to Russia 24.

After Bout sat down, he got a quick medical check and called his family.

This video grab shows Brittney Griner and Viktor Bout during the exchange.
This video grab shows Brittney Griner and Viktor Bout during the exchange. (Sputnik/AP)

Viktor Bout is seen boarded on a plane on Thursday.
Viktor Bout is seen boarded on a plane on Thursday. (Russia TV)
1:55 p.m. ET, December 8, 2022

Analysis: What Viktor Bout’s return to Russia says about Vladimir Putin

From CNN's Nick Paton Walsh

Viktor Bout arrives at a criminal court in Bangkok ,Thailand, in 2010.
Viktor Bout arrives at a criminal court in Bangkok ,Thailand, in 2010. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

On the surface,  US basketball star Brittney Griner and Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout are accused of ludicrously different crimes. Griner was sentenced to a Russian penal colony for possession of a single gram of cannabis oil. Bout is allegedly the most prolific arms dealer of the past decades, fueling conflicts in Africa and beyond – and more specifically being convicted in a US court of plotting to kill Americans.

But the circumstances and political pressure on both sides reversed this imbalance.

Griner gained a significance to Americans, forcing the Biden administration to negotiate with the Kremlin at the worst point of US-Russian relations since at least the end of the Cold War. Bout’s outsized importance to Russia — despite coming to be known as the “Merchant of Death” — has always been the bigger puzzle.

The fact that this exchange happened during the Russian invasion and brutalizing of Ukraine says two things.

First: Moscow and Washington are able to do business even as Russian bombs kill innocent Ukrainian civilians, and the US provides arms to Ukraine that are killing Russian soldiers, and that nuclear powers can work on other thorny issues while bullets are flying. This is a good thing for everyone on the planet. It means some cool heads prevail, and basic interests win out.

Second: It also shows some weakness on the side of Putin. At a time when he is hawkishly flaunting nuclear rhetoric against the West, he is also agreeing to high profile diplomatic deal to get back a figure of outsized, complex importance to Russia’s elite, the intelligence community, and national pride. He is not someone Moscow would – to paraphrase the ugly slogan of Russia’s invasion in which hundreds of soldiers’ bodies have remained strewn on the battlefield – “leave behind.” These are the very people that Putin wants to curry favor with now.

Yes, it is a win for Putin, but one that comes at the cost of exposing his weakness and his need to keep the military elite he relies upon content.

1:44 p.m. ET, December 8, 2022

Viktor Bout tells relatives he is back in Russia, according to state media 

From CNN's Uliana Pavlova

Viktor Bout, the US-traded Russian arms dealer, notified his wife and mother that he is in Russia during a phone call on Thursday, according to state broadcaster 24 and news agency TASS.

During the phone call, Bout reassured his relatives that he was fine. According to the broadcast, a special aircraft carrying Bout made a stop in the Russian city of Makhachkala for refueling.

How the exchange happened: The prisoner exchange was completed successfully at Abu Dhabi Airport on Thursday, the Russian foreign ministry said earlier Thursday.

The statement confirmed that Abu Dhabi received WNBA star Brittney Griner by private plane from Moscow after the Russian authorities released her, in conjunction with the reception of Bout on a private plane from Washington after the US authorities released him, in the presence of specialists from the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

1:27 p.m. ET, December 8, 2022

German chancellor believes risk of Russia using nuclear weapons has decreased

From CNN's Nadine Schmidt in Berlin

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaks to the media in Berlin on December 1.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaks to the media in Berlin on December 1. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The risk of Russia using nuclear weapons in the war with Ukraine has lessened in response to international pressure, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in a new interview.

The remarks, published Thursday by Germany's Funke media group, were later posted by Scholz on Twitter.

He was responding to a question about whether the threat of nuclear escalation had been averted. 

“For the time being, we have put a stop to it," Scholz said. For now, Russia has “stopped threatening to use nuclear weapons. In response to the international community marking a red line,” he continued.

Moscow voiced a different tone earlier this week: On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the threat of nuclear war is increasing and stopped short of pledging that Russia would not be the first to resort to nuclear weapons in a conflict.

“As for the idea that Russia wouldn’t use such weapons first under any circumstances, then it means we wouldn’t be able to be the second to use them either – because the possibility to do so in case of an attack on our territory would be very limited,” he said.

But Putin said he viewed the Russian nuclear arsenal primarily as a deterrent, rather than a provocation.

"We have a strategy … namely, as a defense, we consider weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons – it is all based around the so-called retaliatory strike,” he said. “That is, when we are struck, we strike in response.”

More from the interview: Scholz was also asked if Germany supports French President Emmanuel Macron's openness to providing security guarantees for Moscow in the case of peace negotiations. The chancellor said the priority was for Russia "to end the war immediately and withdraw its troops."

Scholz, who spoke to the Russian president last week, added that ''we have to talk to each other despite this terrible situation. So that Putin also hears our point of view again and again.''

CNN's Katharina Krebs contributed to this report.

1:19 p.m. ET, December 8, 2022

US DOJ officials expressed frustration about prisoner swap when deal narrowed to 1-for-1, sources say

From CNN's Evan Perez

After months of behind-the-scenes discussions inside the US government about efforts to secure the release of Americans held in Russia, including Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner, the outlines of a deal emerged in the past week, people briefed on the matter said. 

White House officials briefed government agencies that the Russians would only agree to swap convicted Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout for WNBA player Brittney Griner. 

Justice Department officials, who were always opposed to releasing Bout, expressed frustration that an earlier deal that included Whelan had been narrowed to Griner.

One US official said law enforcement officials raised strenuous objections and were told the decision had been made. 

For law enforcement officials from the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration, which spent years and elaborate efforts to try to capture the convicted arms dealer, the release of Bout raised additional concerns about the precedent the deal could set. 

Viktor Bout looks out from inside a detention center in Bangkok, Thailand, in 2009.
Viktor Bout looks out from inside a detention center in Bangkok, Thailand, in 2009. (Apichart Weerawong/AP/File)

Bout, a former Soviet military officer, was serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States on charges of conspiring to kill Americans, acquire and export anti-aircraft missiles, and provide material support to a terrorist organization. Bout has maintained he is innocent.

The publicity surrounding Griner — including celebrities posting criticism of the Biden White House on social media for not moving more quickly to secure her release — appeared to raise the Russian price for Griner’s release, law enforcement officials say.

That adds to concerns that the deal increases the likelihood that Russia, Iran and other countries could use the arrest of Americans to try to use the publicity to gain concessions the US otherwise wouldn’t give.