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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1:45 p.m. ET, December 8, 2022

Series of explosions in Russian-held Berdiansk reported on local social channels

From CNN's Julia Kesaieva

Local social media channels in the Russian-occupied city of Berdiansk reported loud explosions and a fire there Thursday morning, though Russian-appointed officials denied any attack.

Berdiansk is a city and port close to the Sea of Azov on Ukraine's southern coast and has been occupied by Russian forces since the early days of the conflict. Its port has previously been targeted by Ukrainian forces.

The explosions were confirmed by Viktoria Galitsyna, the Ukrainian-appointed head of the city's military administration, and Petro Andriushchenko, an adviser to the mayor of Mariupol. Neither official is in Berdiansk.

Galitsyna said the explosions had occurred at a Russian-held airfield just north of the city. Andriushchenko said that, judging by what was being reported locally, something "very big detonates." The sound of the explosions had been heard in nearby villages, he said.

Moscow-backed leaders reject reports: The head of the Russian-appointed administration in Berdiansk, Aleksandr Saulenko, denied the reports.

Saulenko said Ukrainian "couch officials" who had fled to Zaporizhzhia were trying to "mislead users of social networks and messengers by spreading fake messages about explosions near the airport in our wonderful and quiet city."

"Trust only the official information of the Berdiansk (military administration), which is located in the city and has all the information first-hand," Saulenko said.

12:17 p.m. ET, December 8, 2022

Biden official: Russia made clear that Bout "was never a bargaining chip" for Whelan

John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, speaks to CNN's Kate Bolduan.
John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, speaks to CNN's Kate Bolduan. (CNN)

John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, said the Biden administration will continue to work to get detained US citizen Paul Whelan back to the US after a release was secured for Brittney Griner on Thursday.

"Viktor Bout was never a bargaining chip for Mr. Whelan, and the Russians consistently made that clear. So I think we need to make that well-known. We will work as hard today and tomorrow and the next day to get Mr. Whelan home as we have been working since he's been in Russia wrongfully detained," Kirby told CNN's Kate Bolduan.

In July, CNN reported that the Biden administration offered to exchange Bout, a convicted Russian arms trafficker serving a 25-year US prison sentence, as part of a potential deal to secure the release of Griner and Whelan, according to people briefed on the matter.

"It has to do with the nature of the sham charges against him, which were based on espionage," Kirby told CNN Thursday.

Paul Whelan is escorted inside of a court building in Moscow in 2019.
Paul Whelan is escorted inside of a court building in Moscow in 2019. (Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)

Whelan, a US citizen and former Marine who was arrested in 2018 on espionage charges — which he has consistently and vehemently denied — is serving a 16-year prison sentence in Russia.

Kirby said that the US is “not back to square one” in its negotiations for Whelan's release, adding that "we are going to stay at those active discussions going forward."

In an exclusive call with CNN today, Whelan said he was happy that Griner was released but was “disappointed” the Biden administration had not done more to secure his release.

"The stoicism, the courage that he continues to display is not something that's lost on us here. And I can tell you, we worked really, really hard to get Mr. Whelan home. That was always the goal, to get both of them home, and we just couldn't make it work. This was the deal that we could get, and now was the moment we could get it. And we just felt the choice was either get one American home or get none and it was important to at least get one home and we're able to do that," Kirby said.   

Pressed on whether the world is more dangerous with Bout freed, Kirby said, “I can assure you … our focus on our national security interests is not going to change. ... And so with Mr. Bout being back on the street, we're gonna stay focused on making sure we can defend this country.”

CNN's Betsy Klein contributed reporting to this post.

11:33 a.m. ET, December 8, 2022

Ukraine says it continues to work with UN nuclear agency on demilitarizing Zaporizhzhia plant

From CNN Julia Kesaieva and Tim Lister

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant outside Enerhodar in the Zaporizhzhia region of Russian-controlled Ukraine, on October 14.
The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant outside Enerhodar in the Zaporizhzhia region of Russian-controlled Ukraine, on October 14. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

A top Ukrainian official said his government is working with the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency to create a security zone around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, after Russian officials appeared to cast doubt on the idea.

"Ukraine is moving step by step in full mutual understanding with the (International Atomic Energy Agency) to establish a security zone around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in Kyiv.

After a meeting with his Slovak counterpart, Kuleba said Ukraine remained in close contact with IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi, who has been trying to broker a deal that would protect the plant and its surroundings from the conflict.

Kuleba said it was extremely difficult to assure the safety of Ukraine's nuclear power plants "without stopping Russian missile attacks on the territory of Ukraine."

And earlier Thursday, Ukraine's state-owned nuclear company Energoatom said Russian forces had deployed new weapons at the plant. 

It claimed Russia brought several "Grad" rocket launchers to the plant and situated them close to one of the reactors and the storage for spent nuclear fuel.

CNN is unable to confirm the allegation.

What Russia said: Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova appeared to cast doubt on the prospects for an agreement earlier this week.

She was asked: "The head of the IAEA R. Grossi said that experts are close to an acceptable agreement between Ukraine and Russia on the creation of a security zone around the Zaporizhzhia NPP (ZNPP). How would you comment on this statement? Is it possible to transfer control over ZNPP to a third party? Is the visit of the head of the IAEA R. Grossi to Russia expected?"

"There can be no talk of any withdrawal of the Zaporizhzhia NPP from Russian control or transfer of control over it to some 'third party,'" Zakharova responded. "The station is located on Russian territory and is fully controlled by Russia. We presume that only we are able to ensure the physical and nuclear safety of ZNPP."

Some background: Zaporizhzhia is one of the four Ukrainian regions annexed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in defiance of international law.

Putin also signed a decree federalizing the territory's nuclear plant, which has been occupied by Russian troops for months. Ukraine has said plant employees were forced to obtain Russian passports and sign employment contracts with Russia’s state nuclear energy agency. CNN has been unable to verify those allegations.

11:19 a.m. ET, December 8, 2022

Whelan says he knows Russia considers him to be in a different category than Griner

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

US officials have indicated that the Russians refused to release detained American Paul Whelan despite US efforts during negotiations.

Whelan said he was told that because the Russians have accused him of being a spy, “they've put me at a level higher than what they did with Trevor (Reed) and Brittney.”

“That raises a lot of concerns, because none of it is true. And they're trying to get out of United States, what the United States may not be able to provide, but this is basically political extortion,” he said.

He said he was aware that he was considered in a different category than Griner. “The Russians have always said so.”

“They've always considered me to be at a higher level than other criminals of my sort. And for whatever reason, I'm treated differently than another individual here from a Western country that's also on a charge of espionage. So even though we're both here for espionage, I'm treated much differently than he is, and my treatment is also much different than others held for espionage at other prisons,” Whelan said.
1:15 p.m. ET, December 8, 2022

Paul Whelan tells CNN he is "greatly disappointed" Biden administration hasn't done more to secure his release

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan stands inside a defendants' cage before a court hearing in Moscow, Russia, on August 23, 2019
Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan stands inside a defendants' cage before a court hearing in Moscow, Russia, on August 23, 2019 (Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)

Detained American Paul Whelan told CNN he is "greatly disappointed" the Biden administration has not done more to secure his release, meaning he's been left behind in Russia after fellow detained American Brittney Griner was freed on Thursday.

"I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four year anniversary of my arrest is coming up. I was arrested for a crime that never occurred," he said in an exclusive phone call from the penal colony where is being held in a remote part of Russia. "I don't understand why I'm still sitting here."

Remember: Whelan, a US, Irish, British and Canadian citizen, was detained at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 by Russian authorities who alleged he was involved in an intelligence operation. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges he has vehemently denied.

He said he was happy that Griner was released but told CNN he "was led to believe that things were moving in the right direction, and that the governments were negotiating and that something would happen fairly soon."

Now, he says he hopes that President Joe Biden and his administration “would do everything they could to get me home, regardless of the price they might have to pay at this point.”

If a message could go to Biden, it would be that "this is a precarious situation that needs to be resolved quickly," Whelan said. "My bags are packed. I'm ready to go home. I just need an airplane to come and get me."

Whelan also said he would like to speak to Biden directly, noting he had spoken to an administration official earlier in the day about the situation, but “I think that message really needs to go to people like the president, so they understand personally what I'm dealing with, and what we deal with in these foreign prisons and under these circumstances.”

“It’s quite obvious that I'm being held hostage,” he added. 
12:26 p.m. ET, December 8, 2022

Griner's WNBA team: "She's coming home"

Brittney Griner's WNBA team Phoenix Mercury reacted on Twitter to the news that the star has been released from Russian detention in a prisoner swap.

The team has been vocal on Twitter, marking the number of days that Griner had been held and advocating for her release.

The team, along with the NBA's Phoenix Suns, also later released a longer statement:

“Miraculously, mercifully, the count of days detained has ended at 294, and our friend, our sister is headed back home where she belongs. The emotions for our organization, just like for our fans and so many across the world, are those of joyous celebration, deep gratitude grief for the time lost, and sincere hope for all families still awaiting the return of a loved one," it said.  

“The Fight to bring her home as illustrated the power of the WNBA, its players, platform, and mission. We no longer have to Bring BG Home – she’s on her way,” the statement added.

Both the NBA and WNBA commissioners have also issued statements on Griner's release.

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said "there has not been a day over the past ten months where we all haven’t had Brittney Griner on our minds and in our hearts and that has now turned into a collective wave of joy and relief knowing that she will soon be reunited with her family, the WNBA player community, and her friends. BG has shown extraordinary courage and dignity in the face of enormous adversity." She said the organization is grateful to President Joe Biden's administration and hopes Paul Whelan and other detained Americans are brought home.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said “Brittney has had to endure an unimaginable situation and we’re thrilled that she is on her way home to her family and friends. We thank the members of the NBA and WNBA community who never wavered in their efforts to raise awareness of Brittney's unjust circumstances.” 

10:48 a.m. ET, December 8, 2022

Months of "difficult" negotiations led to Brittney Griner's release. Here's how it happened

From CNN's Kevin Liptak

Months and months of “difficult” negotiations with the Russians culminated in Thursday’s prisoner swap securing the release of Brittney Griner, senior US administration officials said, with it becoming clear only in recent weeks that an opening existed for the deal to occur.

How the swap unfolded: The final deal itself came together over the past 48 hours, the officials said, launching the process of moving Griner from the penal colony where she was serving a lengthy sentence.

On Thursday morning, she boarded a plane for the United Arab Emirates. Upon arriving there, she was met on the tarmac by US officials, including special presidential envoy for hostage affairs Roger Carstens. She was in “an extremely upbeat mood” and “all smiles” and “grateful.”

The WNBA star is in good health and is “being offered a wide range of support options,” the officials said. She’ll be offered a “full range” of services to help transition back to life at home.

Bout’s release required an act of clemency from the president ending Bout’s time in US custody after more than 12 years. Yet the official made clear the guilt of his conviction remained in place. 

The US briefed a number of key partners — including the Ukrainians — on the negotiations and agreement securing Griner's release. Yet the war in Ukraine was not itself at the center of the talks securing her release.

The US engaged a number of other international partners in the effort to release Griner, including the United Arab Emirates, where she was flown after leaving Russia. Yet asked about the role of Saudi Arabia, which claimed in a statement that its powerful crown price Mohammed bin Salman jointly led mediation efforts securing Griner’s release, US officials suggested a number of countries were involved.

But Paul Whelan remains in Russian detention: Griner's release was a significant breakthrough, but still a “painful” one, the officials said. In exchange for a convicted arms dealer, Russia would only agree to release Griner, leaving another American — Paul Whelan — behind. In multiple engagements over the past weeks and months, Russian officials made clear that releasing Viktor Bout was the only way they would free Griner from her detention.

The choice, the official said, was bringing “Brittney Griner home right now or no American home from Russia right now.”

Biden made the “difficult decision” to accept the deal. Senior US government officials visited Whelan’s sister to “share and talk through” the news. Another senior US official spoke at length Thursday with Whelan himself, still in a Russian prison. 

The US has proposed multiple options to Russia to secure Whelan’s release, the officials said, and believes Moscow remains open to talks.

10:16 a.m. ET, December 8, 2022

Putin makes rare public comments about Russian strikes against Ukrainian infrastructure

From CNN's Seb Shukla

Workers dismantle an autotransformer which stands completely destroyed after the Ukrenergo high voltage power substation was hit by a missile strike on October 17, in central Ukraine.
Workers dismantle an autotransformer which stands completely destroyed after the Ukrenergo high voltage power substation was hit by a missile strike on October 17, in central Ukraine. (Ed Ram/Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has made rare public comments specifically addressing the attacks from the Russian Armed Forces on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. 

Speaking after an awards ceremony for "Heroes of Russia" at the Kremlin, he addressed a group of soldiers receiving the awards, clutching a glass of champagne.

“Yes, we are doing it. But who started it?” said the president — who ordered the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.

He listed a series of events he blames on the Ukrainians: “Who hit the Crimean bridge? Who blew up the power lines from the Kursk nuclear power plant?” 

Some background: The reference to the bridge pertains to an explosion that took place on the Kerch bridge — which connects Crimea to Russia — on Oct. 8, when a truck crossing it exploded and caused it to be partially destroyed. The Ukrainians have never claimed responsibility, but the Kremlin was quick to point fingers toward Kyiv. In the days following the bridge explosion, Putin said “further acts of terrorism on the territory of Russia will be harsh … have no doubt about that.” Last week, Putin appeared on the bridge while he was shown repairs, and then he drove a car across it. 

The reference to Kursk appears to reference Russia's announcement that an airfield in the Kursk region, which neighbors Ukraine, was targeted in a drone attack. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry has offered no comment on recent explosions, including in Kursk, which are deep within Russia. Officially, the targets are well beyond the reach of the country’s declared drones.

At the awards ceremony, Putin continued to list alleged aggressions: “Who is not supplying water to Donetsk? Not supplying water to a city of million is an act of genocide.”  

He ended his apparent off-the-cuff comments by claiming there is no mention of the water situation. “No one has said a word about it anywhere. At all! Complete silence,” he said.

Local Russian authorities in Donetsk — which Putin claimed to annex in defiance of international law — have reported frequent shelling of the city this week.

The president tersely compared the difference in reactions between attacks on Russia and attacks on Ukraine.

“As soon as we make a move, do something in response — noise, clamor, crackle for the whole universe,” he said.

He ended by saying that “it won’t interfere with our combat missions.” 

10:18 a.m. ET, December 8, 2022

"Welcome home, BG!" USA Basketball celebrates Griner's release

From CNN's David Close

USA Basketball celebrated in a tweet Thursday the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner from Russian detention as part of a prisoner swap.

Griner is a two-time Olympian (2016, 2020) and two-time Olympic gold medalist.  

"Welcome home, BG!" the tweet from USA Basketball reads. "Brittney Griner has shown bravery and resolve over the last nearly 300 days. USA Basketball is relieved that she is on her way home and will happily reunite with her wife, family and friends."

The team expressed gratitude toward the US government for its work on Griner's release.

"We look forward to seeing Brittney again when the time is right and wish her the best in the days and weeks ahead," it added.

See the tweet below: