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 0800 GMT (1600 HKT) December 9, 2022
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10:13 p.m. ET, December 8, 2022

Brittney Griner's family expresses gratitude to Biden, offers prayers for Paul Whelan's return

From CNN's Abby Phillip

Brittney Griner's family expressed gratitude to President Joe Biden and his administration "for the tireless work they did to bring Brittney home" in a statement released Thursday night.

The statement added:

"We sincerely thank you all for the kind words, thoughts and prayers – including Paul and the Whelan family who have been generous with their support for Brittney and our family during what we know is a heartbreaking time. We pray for Paul and for the swift and safe return of all wrongfully-detained Americans. 
"We ask that you respect our privacy as we embark on this road to healing." 
8:12 p.m. ET, December 8, 2022

Biden administration weighing some other kind of offer to secure Whelan's return, official says

From CNN's Kylie Atwood and Jennifer Hansler

The Biden administration has ideas about “new forms of offers” it is going to try with the Russians in an effort to secure American Paul Whelan’s release, a senior administration official said. 

The official said there is a recognition that the US needs to make available “something more, something different” from what it has offered thus far. 

This position comes as Whelan told CNN the administration would have to look at what it has "that these people want, and hopefully give it to them, or I'll be here for a long time.”

Russia views Whelan as a spy, the administration official explained, which means it puts him in a different category. The official didn’t rule out the US offering a Russian spy in US custody. 

“There is a willingness to pay even a very big price on the part of this president,” the official said. “We have made clear to the Russians that we at least are open to talking about that which is at our disposal, that which we could actually deliver. It would be somebody in our custody.”


7:29 p.m. ET, December 8, 2022

Former governor Bill Richardson says Biden made right decision on Griner swap

From CNN's Mary Kay Mallonee

Former Gov. Bill Richardson, who worked to help secure the release of Brittney Griner from Russia, said President Joe Biden made the right decision on the prisoner swap.

Richardson and his namesake foundation privately work on behalf of families of American hostages and detainees being held overseas.

He told CNN he did not reveal any behind-the-scenes details of the negotiations for Griner’s release but said, “We were hoping for a two-for-two, Paul Whelan and Brittney for [Viktor] Bout and another Russian, but at the end, I think the geopolitical differences, the bad relationship between Russia and the United States, Russia said we’ll do one for one, and I think the president was right to go ahead with Brittney Griner, get her home to her family, to her father, to her wife.”

“We now have to concentrate on Paul Whelan,” Richardson said. “I think we have to make an effort to get him out before the end of the year.”

Richardson expressed frustration over failed efforts to bring Whelan home. 

“We have tried, my foundation, for four years to get Whelan out and somehow it always falls short. We tried it during the Trump administration, early on in the Biden administration and it seems at the very end, possibly because of the espionage charge, because he’s a Marine .... he’s wrongfully detained, the Russians hold on to him at the very end, and this is what happened again, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a possibility that we can get him out. I think we can," he said.

6:40 p.m. ET, December 8, 2022

Putin defends attacks on Ukraine infrastructure targets. Here are the top headlines from today

WNBA star Brittney Griner is on her way back to the US after being released from Russian detention in a prisoner swap for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. The swap did not include Paul Whelan, another American the State Department has declared wrongfully detained. 

Meantime, Russia's war in Ukraine is far from over. Nearly 10 months after his invasion of Ukraine began, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday acknowledged that the conflict is “going to take a while."

Here are the top headlines today from the war:

  • Concerns at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant: A top Ukrainian official said his government is working with the UN's nuclear watchdog agency to create a security zone around the plant. But, Ukraine's state-owned nuclear company Energoatom claimed Russian forces had deployed new weapons at the facility. A spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry cast doubt on the prospects for an agreement earlier this week, saying, "The station is located on Russian territory and is fully controlled by Russia."
  • Explosions near a key southern port: Loud explosions and a fire were reported in the city of Berdiansk near the Sea of Azov. The city and port have been occupied by Russian forces since the early days of the conflict. Its port has previously been targeted by Ukrainian forces. The Ukrainian-appointed head of the city's military administration confirmed the explosions, though Russian-appointed officials there denied any attack.
  • Fighting in Donetsk and Kharkiv regions: Russian forces are 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, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said. Further south, the Donetsk front lines continue to see heavy Russian shelling in nearly 20 areas, according to the military.

  • Missiles hit Russian airfields: Ukraine's army has significantly streamlined its protocol for approving unmanned aerial vehicles and other weaponry, according to the country's defense minister. It comes days after Moscow accused Kyiv of drone strikes on air bases deep inside its territory. The defense minister explained that the previous process to approve one or two drones could take up to two years — but now, seven Ukrainian-made UAVs have been green-lit for operation over the past 30 days.
  • Race to repair Ukrainian energy grid: "Frost, rain with snow and strong wind" paired with continuing clashes are hindering repairs to Ukraine's power grid, as technicians race to get energy infrastructure damaged in weeks of relentless Russian strikes back up and running, according to state energy company Ukrenergo.
  • Putin comments on Russian attacks: The Russian president made rare public comments specifically addressing the attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. Putin, who ordered the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, said of the war, “Yes, we are doing it. But who started it?” 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?” 
5:26 p.m. ET, December 8, 2022

US concluded Viktor Bout was not a security threat before Biden agreed to Griner deal, White House says

From CNN's MJ Lee

The Biden administration conducted a security assessment in the lead-up to the deal to trade Brittney Griner for Viktor Bout and determined the convicted arms dealer would not pose a threat to US security, a White House official told CNN. 

One reality that the assessment took into account, the person said, is the fact that Bout has been in prison for over a decade and therefore has not been actively engaged in any recent criminal activity. 

This kind of security assessment is typically made whenever the government is in negotiations to try to bring home an American who is deemed to be wrongfully detained abroad.

But, other than to say that the security assessment conducted on Bout was “thorough,” the official would not elaborate on how the US was able to be certain that the Russian arms dealer wouldn’t pose a future risk to the country.

Since news of the Griner-Bout swap became public, the administration has confronted criticism and concerns regarding what Bout may do as a free individual – and questions about the value of releasing such a notorious person.

Bout's 25-year sentence in the US was for conspiring to kill Americans, acquire and export anti-aircraft missiles, and provide material support to a terrorist organization. Bout has maintained he is innocent.

Earlier in the day, when asked whether a risk assessment had been conducted on Bout, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters she would not offer any details about what intelligence Biden was given about Bout.   

4:58 p.m. ET, December 8, 2022

"It's Joe Biden. Welcome, welcome home": Inside the Oval Office as Brittney Griner gained her freedom

From CNN's Phil Mattingly

In the days leading to Brittney Griner’s release, US officials grew increasingly convinced it was no longer a matter of if, but when.

That reality was the driver behind an invitation to Brittney's wife Cherelle Griner earlier this week to come to the White House early Thursday morning, according to a senior administration official. 

The invitation was to meet with national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Biden’s top national security official who had briefed Cherelle Griner several times over the course of the nearly 10 months her wife had been detained in Russia. The agenda was an update on a process that was clearly moving toward resolution. 

By the time Cherelle Griner arrived at the White House, it was clear Brittney Griner was on the verge of being released. She had been moved from the penal colony where she’d been detained to Moscow. The final deal, one official acknowledged, was clearly in its end game. 

As Cherelle Griner waited to meet with Sullivan, however, a change in venue signaled what was about to happen. With no explanation, Griner was led back to the Oval Office, where President Joe Biden was waiting. 

Biden delivered the first official confirmation that Brittney Griner was on her way home, something he’d told aides he wanted to do himself. Shortly after, advisers delivered the official notification to Biden and Cherelle Griner: Brittany Griner was secure and in the hands of US officials. 

Biden then brought Cherelle Griner to a chair set up next to his at the Resolute Desk. Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Sullivan stood nearby. 

Brittany Griner was then connected to the room by speaker phone — her first call to her wife since she’d been freed. 

“It’s Joe Biden. Welcome, welcome home,” Biden said when the line connected, according to the official. After a short conversation between the three, Biden showed Cherelle to the private dining room, where she was able to continue the call with her wife privately. 

Less than an hour later, the two stood side by side down the hall in the Roosevelt Room. 

“She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home,” Biden announced. 
9:57 p.m. ET, December 8, 2022

Plane carrying arms dealer Viktor Bout has arrived in Moscow, Russian state media reports

From CNN's Radina Gigova

A plane carrying Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, according to local media, lands in Moscow on December 8.
A plane carrying Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, according to local media, lands in Moscow on December 8. (Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)

A plane carrying Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout landed in Moscow following a prisoner swap for US basketball star Brittney Griner, according to Russian state television channel Russia 24.

Bout's wife and mother were waiting and hugged him as soon as he walked off the plane, Russia 24 footage shows.

The channel earlier released video of Bout boarding a plane, getting a quick medical check and calling his family.

Bout told a reporter in Moscow he learned that he'd be returning to his native country in the middle of the night – and that he "didn't even get to say goodbye to anyone."

"They simply woke me up and said, 'Get your things together' and that was it," he recalled. "There was no preliminary information."

Griner is expected to land in San Antonio, Texas, Thursday but the exact timing is unclear.

Who is Viktor Bout? Bout, nicknamed the “Merchant of Death” by his accusers, is a former Soviet military officer who was serving a 25-year sentence in the US on various charges, including conspiring to kill Americans.

You can read more about the convicted arms dealer here.

This post has been updated with comments from Bout to Russian media.

4:52 p.m. ET, December 8, 2022

Griner lawyer says there were positive signs in the last week concerning her possible release

Maria Blagovolina speaks to CNN's Jake Tapper about Griner's release.
Maria Blagovolina speaks to CNN's Jake Tapper about Griner's release. (CNN)

One of Brittney Griner's lawyers in Russia, Maria Blagovolina, said there were indications last week that something was happening in relation to her possible release.

"There were signs. There were positive signs, I would say, which appeared last week, and I got a call from Brittney at the end of last week and she told me that she's hopeful. So we had an understanding that things would be happening very, very soon," Blagovolina told CNN's Jake Tapper.

She noted that the weeks since Griner was transferred to a new detention facility in Mordovia had been very stressful for the basketball star as she'd also caught the flu.

"This is not a holiday resort. This is jail, and the conditions there are really harsh, and that's true. But what I can say for sure, that Brittney has not complained and was treated very well – and I think that the reason for this is mostly because of her very likable character. People like her," Blagovolina said. "So everybody who is around her just is trying to help her, to support her." 

The lawyer added that the support Griner received from people in the US had helped her remain strong over the past nine months.