A plane carrying WNBA star Brittney Griner arrived at San Antonio's Kelly Field, in Texas, early Friday, a day after she was released from Russian detention.
Griner spent 10 months behind bars in Russia before being released in a high-profile prisoner swap that involved convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
In February, authorities in a Moscow-area airport found Griner with less than a gram of cannabis oil in her luggage. She was later convicted of drug smuggling charges and sentenced to nine years in prison. In November, she was transferred to a penal colony to serve out her sentence.
5:23 a.m. ET, December 9, 2022
Donetsk remains the focus of enemy attacks, Ukraine's armed forces say
From CNN's Maria Kostenko in Kyiv, Ukraine
The eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk remains the focus of Russian attacks, particularly Avdiivka and Bakhmut, a Ukrainian Armed Forces spokesman said.
In Bakhmut the situation is "difficult but controlled," press officer Serhii Cherevatyi of the eastern division of the Ukrainian military said.
The head of the regional military administration of Donetsk, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said five people were killed in the region on Wednesday.
Ukrainian military officials said in their daily update that 25 "localities" near Avdiivka and Bakhmut had been targeting by shelling, mortars and rocket artillery.
5:17 a.m. ET, December 9, 2022
Ukraine is a "human rights emergency," UN rights chief says
From CNN’s Zahid Mahmood in London
Ukraine is a "human rights emergency," United Nations human rights chief Volker Turk said on Friday.
"You have 17.7 million in need of humanitarian assistance; you have 9.3 million requiring food and livelihood assistance," Turk said at a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland. "You have about 7.4 million refugees, you have 6.5 million people internally displaced."
Turk said the country is "suffering" from not only continued missile attacks but from destroyed civilian infrastructure.
"The energy sector is heavily affected, the heating system, the electricity grid, there are people who live in sub-zero temperatures without heating, and without electricity," he said.
"There are these blackouts, so you can imagine these are millions of people who suffer this every day."
On Monday, Russia launched a fresh barrage of missiles toward Ukraine, cutting off water and electricity supplies in some areas and killing at least one person in the Ukrainian city of Kryvyi Rih and at least two people in Zaporizhzhia, according to local authorities.
3:05 a.m. ET, December 9, 2022
Kherson hospital hit by Russian shelling, official says
From CNN's Teele Rebane
A hospital in Kherson city was hit by Russian shelling on Friday morning, Yaroslav Yanushevysh, head of the Kherson region military administration, said in a Telegram post.
The pediatric ward and morgue were damaged in the shelling, according to Yanushevysh. No injuries or casualties have been recorded so far.
On Wednesday, two people died after Kherson was shelled 51 times, according to Yanushevysh, who said Russians had “fired at peaceful settlements of the region with artillery, MLRS, tanks and mortars.”
Some context: Last month, Russian troops withdrew from Kherson city after having occupied it for eight months, in a humiliating setback. But Russia still retains control of much of the broader Kherson region.
1:31 a.m. ET, December 9, 2022
Blinken says US will "soon be able to call" Sweden and Finland NATO allies
From CNN’s Hannah Ritchie
The US will “soon be able to call” Sweden and Finland NATO allies, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday following a meeting with his Swedish and Finnish counterparts, when asked about their admission into the defense alliance.
"I am convinced based on everything I know that we will soon be able to call both countries formally our allies … Finland and Sweden are already integrating into our work," Blinken told reporters at the State Department. "There can be no doubt on anyone's part that they are ready today to be members of the alliance."
Some context: Finland and Sweden asked to join NATO earlier this year following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but have faced ratification delays from Turkey and Hungary.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has accused both countries of harboring members of the separatist militant Kurdistan’s Workers Party, also known as PKK, which Turkey views as a terrorist organization.
Erdoğan has also called on Finland to publicly abandon the arms embargo it imposed on Turkey in 2019, after it invaded northern Syria. A step which Sweden — which had joined the embargo — took in September.
“Turkey has raised important security concerns in this process, and the process is being used effectively and productively to address those concerns. I won't speak for either of my colleagues on that except to say as we've observed it, what both countries have done in engaging with Turkey and with NATO itself, has been to address those concerns in tangible ways,” Blinken said. “And we've seen these countries take tangible steps to again address the concerns that Turkey has raised. So, I'm confident that this is moving forward."
NATO decisions are made by consensus, which means all 30 alliance member states must approve the two Nordic nations joining. Turkey is the only member that has voiced opposition to their membership, while Hungary is yet to ratify it.
12:20 a.m. ET, December 9, 2022
Analysis: Biden chose humanity over geopolitics with Griner release
Analysis from CNN's Stephen Collinson
Swapping an American jailed for a minor drugs offense in Russia for one of the world’s most notorious arms traffickers known as “The Merchant of Death” might seem like a lopsided deal that could fuel dangerous national security precedents.
But President Joe Biden’s decision to exchange WNBA star Brittney Griner for Viktor Bout goes beyond the exchange’s bottom line. It represented a humane resolution to a painful dilemma that came after tortuous talks with a Russian regime that treats people as geopolitical pawns every day.
In that sense, the Biden administration demonstrated the gulf between its moral grounding and that of Russian President Vladimir Putin who is currently demonstrating his inhumanity on another front, with a fearsome assault on Ukrainian civilians.
But the tragic counterpoint to this diplomatic triumph — Biden’s failure to also secure the release of Paul Whelan, another American incarcerated in a Russian penal colony — underscored the unforgiving moral conundrum he faced. And it prompted top Republicans to charge that he had prioritized a basketball superstar over an ex-marine who benefited from a vocal political pressure campaign on Biden.
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."
10:03 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.”
10:03 p.m. ET, December 8, 2022
Inside Biden's agonizing decision to take a deal that freed Brittney Griner but left Paul Whelan in Russia
From CNN's Kevin Liptak and Phil Mattingly
President Joe Biden had already personally informed Cherelle Griner that her wife was being released from Russian detention when aides arrived with more news: Brittney Griner was now securely out of Russia — and on the telephone.
“It’s Joe Biden,” the president said when the call was patched through. “Welcome, welcome home!”
Nearly 10 months after Brittney Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport, the jubilant moment in the Oval Office on Thursday amounted to the culmination of prolonged, frustrating negotiations and one painful decision that left another detained American disappointed and wondering what his fate may be.
In conversations across an array of government channels, Russian officials were clear with their American counterparts: they would release Griner — and only Griner — in exchange for a convicted Russian arms dealer nicknamed the “merchant of death.”
Because of the matter’s exceedingly high profile, it was certain those conditions had been set by Russian President Vladimir Putin himself, one US official said.
Despite Biden’s attempts to link Griner’s case to that of Paul Whelan, a former US Marine arrested on espionage charges in 2018 and sentenced to 16 years in prison two years later, it became plain recently that Putin would not budge.
“The choice was bringing Brittney Griner home right now, or bringing no one home right now,” one senior administration official said.