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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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:  

10:14 a.m. ET, December 8, 2022

Bout's lawyer says his client urged legal team to have patience for prisoner swap

From CNN's Matthew Chance in London 

Russian arm dealer Viktor Bout looks from behind bars at the Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand, on October 10, 2008.
Russian arm dealer Viktor Bout looks from behind bars at the Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand, on October 10, 2008. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

Steve Zissou, Viktor Bout's lawyer in the US, told CNN on Thursday that the prisoner swap between Brittney Griner and his client is "fair." 

"As I have urged for some time, given the fifteen long years that Viktor Bout has been in custody since the United States government targeted him in 2006, his exchange for Brittney Griner, who has only been in custody for a few months, is fair," he said in a statement to CNN. 

"Viktor Bout has been reunited with his family, just as Brittney Griner is with hers. The people of Russia never gave up on him during the fifteen years of his wrongful incarceration, just as the people of the United States never gave up on Ms. Griner. Hopefully, this is just the first of many reasonable agreements between the U.S. and Russia that will lead to better relations and a safer world," he added. 

Since the visit of Russia's Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov in October to the Marion prison where Bout was serving his sentence, Bout has been very confident he would be released, Zissou told CNN.

The lawyer added that Bout has been urging his legal team to "chill out" and have "long patience."

Zissou told CNN said that his legal team knew a swap was imminent 24 hours ago. 

10:25 a.m. ET, December 8, 2022

Brittney Griner's prisoner exchange was a result of mediation from UAE and Saudi Arabia

From CNN's Becky Anderson in Abu Dhabi

The prisoner exchange between the US and Russia for Brittney Griner and Viktor Bout was secured by joint mediation between UAE and Saudi Arabia, the countries said in a statement. 

“The joint statement issued by the [Saudi Arabian and the UAE] ministries affirmed that the success of the mediation efforts is a reflection of the mutual and solid friendship that connects both countries with the United States of America, and the Russian Federation."

The prisoner exchange was completed successfully at Abu Dhabi Airport on Thursday, the Russian foreign ministry said earlier Thursday.. US President Joe Biden expressed his gratitude to the UAE for its role in the swap in remarks at the White House.

The statement confirmed that Abu Dhabi received 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.

"Both America and Russia claimed their citizens, in preparation for transfer to their countries," the statement said. "The UAE and Saudi Arabian foreign ministries expressed the thanks of their respective governments to the governments of the US and Russia for their cooperation and response, and for the joint mediation efforts made by the leaderships of the two countries."

A senior Emirati official told CNN the exchange of Griner and Bout was done at al Bateen airport in Abu Dhabi, which is an executive airport. Griner took off at approximately 9 a.m. ET just after Bout's flight left.

The decision was discussed when UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in October. They also spoke about it and other issues on a call Wednesday.

12:21 p.m. ET, December 8, 2022

US secretary of state praises Griner release and says effort to bring Whelan home will not relent

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

U.S. President Joe Biden and Cherelle Griner speak on the phone with WNBA basketball star Brittney Griner as Vice President Kamala Harris and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken look on, at the White House in Washington, U.S. on December 8.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Cherelle Griner speak on the phone with WNBA basketball star Brittney Griner as Vice President Kamala Harris and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken look on, at the White House in Washington, U.S. on December 8. (The White House/Reuters)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken praised the release of Brittney Griner from Russian detention and said the administration will continue efforts to bring Paul Whelan and other detainees back to the US.

The country's top diplomat said it “was as moving as it was unforgettable” to listen to Griner's wife, Cherelle, speak with Brittney in the Oval office today.

“Their strength, their resilience, has been nothing ... short of inspiring,” Blinken said.

In his public remarks Thursday, Blinken was also quick to acknowledge the reality of Whelan's continued detention.

“[We] will not relent in our efforts to bring Paul and all other U.S. nationals held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad home to their loved ones where they belong," the secretary of state said in an earlier statement.  

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.

“I am grateful to the State Department team and to our colleagues across the government who worked tirelessly to secure her release. I especially commend Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens, who is accompanying Brittney back to the United States, as well as his entire team,” Blinken said.

“We also extend deep appreciation to our many partners who helped achieve this outcome, including our Emirati friends, who assisted in the transfer today,” he said, indicating that the prisoner swap for Griner took place in the United Arab Emirates. 

“While we celebrate Brittney’s release, Paul Whelan and his family continue to suffer needlessly,” Blinken said. “Despite our ceaseless efforts, the Russian Government has not yet been willing to bring a long overdue end to his wrongful detention. I wholeheartedly wish we could have brought Paul home today on the same plane with Brittney.”

9:20 a.m. ET, December 8, 2022

CNN's Van Jones on Griner's release: This is a result of "a grassroots movement" 

CNN political commentator Van Jones said the release of Brittney Griner from Russian detention was the result of an extensive "grassroots movement" — led especially by Black women back in the US. 

"Today is going to be a joyful moment. For all the pain, for all the criticisms, a joyful moment for the Black women who led a movement to get one of their sisters home. This was a grassroots movement. They had to push to get male athletes, to get us to take it seriously, but they have triumphed," Jones told CNN.

"Here is the deal, if you can bring one home, you can bring two home. So I don't see this as bad sign for Paul Whelan. I think it is a good sign for what Americans can do when we stand together," he added.

CNN's Don Lemon noted the significance of the moment for the LGBTQ community, as members of the community face challenges in the US and around the world.

Jones said Griner represents "everything in this country — she's female, she's LGBTQ, she's Black, and she is extraordinary. She's excellent. She's overcome. She's an icon. She's done everything you can do in her sport and more — and yet she still wasn't safe."

"We didn't let it stand. Americans came together. And I think that Biden and Kamala Harris, this is one of the things I think they'll be the most proud of," he said.

9:00 a.m. ET, December 8, 2022

"It was a choice to get Brittney or nothing," US official says

From CNN's MJ Lee

A US official says Russians signaled more recently that they were only willing to negotiate for Brittney Griner and not Paul Whelan. That is because Russians have been handling their cases differently based on what each has been accused of.

The Biden administration repeatedly made offers to get Whelan as part of this deal – even after Russia made clear only Griner was acceptable. 

In the end, when it was clear Russia was going to refuse on Whelan, the US had to accept it.

“It was a choice to get Brittney or nothing,” the US official said.

The official says it was a “difficult decision” for President Joe Biden but one he felt he had to make.

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.

Whelan had been carrying out his sentence at a labor camp in Mordovia, an eight-hour drive from Moscow, where he told CNN in June 2021 he spent his days working in a clothing factory that he called a “sweatshop.”

10:17 a.m. ET, December 8, 2022

The Whelan family is happy for Griner's release, but devastated Paul was left behind 

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

Paul Whelan stands inside a defendants' cage during a hearing at a court in Moscow, Russia, on August 23, 2019.
Paul Whelan stands inside a defendants' cage during a hearing at a court in Moscow, Russia, on August 23, 2019. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images)

The family of Paul Whelan, the American wrongful detainee left behind in Russia, expressed happiness at the news that Brittney Griner is on her way home, but said they are “devastated” that he was left behind.

They commended the Biden administration for both making the deal to secure her release, and noted they had been given a heads up about the deal.

“I can't even fathom how Paul will feel when he learns. Paul has worked so hard to survive nearly 4 years of this injustice. His hopes had soared with the knowledge that the US government was taking concrete steps for once towards his release. He'd been worrying about where he'd live when he got back to the US,” David Whelan, Paul’s brother, said in an email to the media Thursday.

“And now what? How do you continue to survive, day after day, when you know that your government has failed twice to free you from a foreign prison? I can't imagine he retains any hope that a government will negotiate his freedom at this point. It's clear that the US government has no concessions that the Russian government will take for Paul Whelan. And so Paul will remain a prisoner until that changes,” Whelan said.

“Increasingly, I worry that Paul himself won't survive 12 more years in a Russian labor colony. He has tried to stay healthy but one wonders how long that determination to keep going can endure,” he said, noting that “the likelihood that our parents will see their son again diminishes each day his wrongful detention continues.” 

David Whelan said he did not know if his brother was aware of Griner’s release yet, “although he will surely learn from Russian media.” 

Whelan commended the Biden administration for making the deal to free Griner, however, and acknowledged that the family had been given a heads up. 

“I am so glad that Brittney Griner is on her way home. As the family member of a Russian hostage, I can literally only imagine the joy she will have, being reunited with her loved ones, and in time for the holidays,” 

“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,” he said. 

9:10 a.m. ET, December 8, 2022

"This was not a choice of which American to bring home," Biden says as prisoner swap excludes Paul Whelan

President Joe Biden speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, on December 8.
President Joe Biden speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, on December 8. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

President Joe Biden addressed the fact that the swap did not include another American who the State Department has declared wrongfully detained: Paul Whelan.

"We've not forgotten about Paul Whalen, who has been unjustly detained in Russia for years. This was not a choice of which American to bring home. We brought home Trevor Reed when we had a chance earlier this year. Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul's case differently than Brittney's," Biden said Thursday.

"While we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul's release, we are not giving up. We will never give up. We remain in close touch with Paul's family, the Whelan family. My thoughts and prayers are with them today. They have to have such mixed emotions today," Biden added.

"I guarantee," Biden said, that the US will keep working on Whelan's release.

Some background: 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.

Whelan had been carrying out his sentence at a labor camp in Mordovia, an eight-hour drive from Moscow, where he told CNN in June 2021 he spent his days working in a clothing factory that he called a “sweatshop.”