December 9, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

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Putin makes rare public comment about who's to blame for attacks
01:49 - Source: CNN

What we covered here

  • WNBA star Brittney Griner is back on US soil after being released from a Russian jail in a prisoner swap for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout.
  • Russia refused to release another detained American, Paul Whelan, unless a former colonel currently in German custody was also released, US officials told CNN.
  • President Vladimir Putin said Russia may abandon its doctrine of “no first use” of nuclear weapons. It’s the second time this week Putin has floated the possibility.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the situation remains very difficult along the frontline in the country’s Donbas region.
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Our live coverage for the day has ended. Follow the latest Ukraine news here or read through the updates below. 

White House expresses concern about growing Iran-Russia defense partnership

The White House is continuing to sound the alarm at the flourishing military partnership between Iran and Russia, saying Friday the US would work to “expose and disrupt” the exchange of weapons and know-how between the two countries.

“This is a fullscale defense partnership that is harmful to Ukraine, to Iran’s neighbors and quite frankly to the international community,” said John Kirby, the strategic communications coordinator at the National Security Council.

Kirby said the US was imposing new sanctions on three Russian entities involved in acquiring and using Russian drones. The US also authorized an additional $275 million in military aid for Ukraine on Friday.

He said the several hundred drones Iran is providing to Russia are being used to kill innocent Ukrainians and destroy civilian infrastructure. He said Iran was providing Russia with an “unprecedented level” of military and technical support, including the potential sale of ballistic missiles and a new joint production line.

In return, Russia is seeking to collaborate with Iran on weapons development and advanced military components, Kirby said, and could be providing Tehran with helicopters and air defense systems along with training pilots in Russia.

He called the Tehran-Moscow pipeline a “full-fledged defense partnership” that the US expects to grow in the coming months.

He said the US has warned other Middle East nations the alliance could pose a threat to their region, and said the US would “bring together like-minded countries” to discuss Iran-Russia cooperation.

Paul Whelan’s brother hopeful US “will be creative” about possible prisoner swap

David Whelan

The brother of Paul Whelan said he doesn’t believe the US has run out of options when it comes to a possible prisoner swap involving his imprisoned sibling.

“Russia likes parity,” David Whelan told CNN on Friday. “They like getting equal things and it’s both when you hit them they want to hit you back and when you give them something, they want to give you the same thing only. So it’s a very careful and parsimonious view of the world.”

He said Moscow has labeled Paul a spy and speculated that the country could be “waiting for a Russian spy to be arrested somewhere else in the world, and then use Paul for that purpose.”

“But I think that the US government has shown that it can be creative and will be creative going forward,” he said.

Whelan said the previous days have been “pretty devastating” for his brother, and that his detainment has also been “very difficult” on their family.

“It’s hard to keep your own morale up,” he said. “You want to support Paul and keep his morale up, but you know that really each day is the clock ticking away.”

Some background: Russia refused to release Whelan — a former Marine convicted of espionage charges — alongside WNBA star Brittney Griner unless a former colonel from Russia’s domestic spy imprisoned in Germany was also released, a U.S. official told CNN. 

The US was unable to deliver on the request for the ex-colonel, Vadim Krasikov, because he is serving out a life sentence for murder in Germany.

Brittney Griner was able to call her dad on the plane back to the US, lawmaker says

Brittney Griner, the American basketball released by Russia in a prisoner exchange, was able to call her dad from the plane while flying home, according to Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee.

“I have spoken with a parent, and he was eagerly waiting for a call which was arranged, and so she was able to in midair call her dad. And I can assure you that made him more than ecstatic,” Jackson Lee, who represents Texas’ 18th Congressional District, told CNN.

“He is a veteran, which is what we kept saying as we pushed for the negotiations, that here is a veteran whose daughter has been taken by one the worst leaders in the world. So, he is happy obviously. They all want to see her and might even want to see her back here at home, but I know that was a happy phone reunion to hear his daughter’s voice,” she said.

Infrastructure and military among priorities amid energy crunch in Ukraine, prime minister says

As Ukraine grapples with an energy crisis, the country will have to set priorities for electricity supply, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said.

“The first priority is critical infrastructure, in particular water and heat supply facilities and hospitals,” Shmyhal told a government meeting. “The second priority is the military-industrial complex — facilities that work for the defense of the state. The principle, ‘Everything for the front,’ remains absolutely unchanged.”

He said the third priority is businesses that produce essential products — for example, bakeries and dairies. And the residential sector was fourth.

Volodymyr Kudrytskyi, CEO of state electricity generator Ukrenergo, said that repairs were continuing after the last wave of Russian missile attacks on Monday.

Kudrytskyi said substations in southern Ukraine and power plants were damaged.

“Several power plants were forced to stop generating electricity after the damage. Now we are gradually trying to restore generation at thermal power plants, to bring them to the levels that existed on the eve of the last attack.”

Kudrytskyi said that since Oct. 10, more than 1,000 heavy missiles and drones have been fired at energy infrastructure facilities. The major difficulties with electricity supply were currently in the Odesa region, Kherson region, and Kharkiv region.

Nuclear generation has provided a little more than half of Ukraine’s needs in the recent past but Kudrytskyi said said the country needed other types of energy generation.

“There is not a single thermal power plant in Ukraine that was not damaged by the attacks,” he said. “Similarly, almost all hydroelectric power plants have suffered some damage and have a limited ability to generate electricity.”

He said as repairs continued, he hoped the country could transition to planned outages in the next few days. Much of Ukraine has also suffered emergency power cuts in recent weeks.

Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko said more Russian targeting of infrastructure could be expected, and the energy supply might also be affected by heavy frosts.

“Ukraine has already received power equipment worth millions of euros. Our task today is not only to use the equipment for rapid restoration works but also to form a stock of equipment that may be urgently needed after the next shelling,” he said.

Catch up: Here's what you need to know about Russia's war in Ukraine today

WNBA star Brittney Griner arrived at a Texas Army medical center Friday for a routine evaluation after she was released from Russian detention in a prisoner swap. 

And in Ukraine, some critical infrastructure for electricity is “totally destroyed” according to the country’s infrastructure minister. 

If you’re just reading in now, here are the latest developments: 

  • Prisoner swap concerns: The Pentagon said Thursday that “there is a concern” Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was released from prison in exchange for WNBA star Brittney Griner, may return to the illicit international arms trade.
  • Ukraine destruction: About half of Ukraine’s critical infrastructure for electricity has been “damaged more,” with some deemed “totally destroyed” by the country’s infrastructure minister Oleksandr Kubrakov. As for the country’s energy, state supplier Ukrenergo maintains that the situation “remains difficult but under control.”
  • Fighting in Ukraine: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Friday “the frontline situation remains very difficult in the key areas of Donbas — Bakhmut, Soledar, Mariinka, Kreminna.” There’s been heavy fighting in Donetsk for months, and the city has suffered extensive destruction.
  • Potential doctrine change: Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday at a news conference that Russia may abandon its current doctrine of “no first use” of nuclear weapons. It’s the second time this week Putin has floated the possibility.
  • Ukrainian aide: The Pentagon announced Friday that an additional $275 million in security assistance for Ukraine has been approved. According to the Defense Department, the US has provided more than $19 billion in aid to Ukraine since the start of the war in February. 

Zelensky says frontline situation in east is "very difficult" as Ukrainian forces repel Russian assaults

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledged Friday that the military situation in parts of eastern Ukraine was “very difficult” but said Ukrainian forces continued to resist Russian attacks.

In his daily video address, Zelensky said, “The frontline situation remains very difficult in the key areas of Donbas — Bakhmut, Soledar, Mariinka, Kreminna.”

The four towns are on the frontlines in Donetsk and Luhansk, which have moved little in the last three months.

“There is no living place left on the ground in these areas that is undamaged by shells and fire,” Zelensky said. “The occupiers have actually destroyed Bakhmut — another city of Donbas, which the Russian army turned into scorched ruins.”

Zelensky said Ukrainian forces were holding the front, repelling attacks and inflicting “tangible losses on the enemy in response to the hell that came to Ukraine under the Russian flag.”

Situation on the frontline: There’s been heavy fighting around the city of Bakhmut in Donetsk for months. The city has suffered extensive destruction, as have dozens of settlements along the front lines in Donetsk.

Earlier Friday, an adviser to the president’s office, Oleksiy Arestovych, said the Russians were making an unprecedented push towards Bakhmut. He also said that the situation around nearby Soledar “has worsened a little” with the Russians closing in on a village near an important highway.

In the Luhansk direction, Arestovych talked about dynamic front lines in which each side goes on the attack. But he said that at present, it was the Russians on the offensive, “meaning we are holding defenses.”

Russia demanded a spy held in Germany be freed in exchange for Paul Whelan

Paul Whelan stands inside a defendants' cage during a hearing at a court in Moscow in 2019.

Russia refused to release Paul Whelan alongside Brittney Griner unless a former colonel from Russia’s domestic spy currently in German custody was also released as part of any prisoner swap, US officials told CNN, even as the US offered up the names of several other Russian prisoners in US custody that they would be willing to trade.

The US was unable to deliver on the request for the ex-colonel, Vadim Krasikov, because he is serving out a life sentence for murder in Germany. 

CNN first reported exclusively in August that the Russians had requested that Krasikov be released along with Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who was serving a 25-year sentence in the US, in exchange for Whelan and Griner. 

US officials made quiet inquiries to Germany about whether they might be willing to include Krasikov in the trade, a senior German government source told CNN earlier this year. But ultimately, the US was not able to secure Krasikov’s release. 

The German government was not willing to seriously consider including Krasikov — who had assassinated a Georgian citizen in broad daylight in Berlin in 2019 — in a potential trade, the German source said.  

The US made several other offers to the Russians, sources said, to get them to agree to include Whelan in the swap. Among the names floated by the US was Alexander Vinnik, a Russian national extradited to the US in August on allegations of money laundering, hacking and extortion. 

The US also offered to trade Roman Seleznev, a convicted Russian cyber-criminal currently serving a 14-year sentence in the US, sources said. 

A lawyer for Seleznev did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Frédéric Bélot, a lawyer who represented Vinnik in France before his extradition to the US, told CNN Friday that he was not aware of any current discussions between Moscow and Washington over including Vinnik in a potential prisoner swap. 

Putin floats possibility that Russia may abandon doctrine of "no first use" of nuclear weapons

Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council meeting at the Congress Hall in Bishkek on December 9.

For the second time this week, President Vladimir Putin has floated the possibility that Russia may formally change its current doctrine that it will not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict. 

Putin noted that United States’ policy was not to exclude the possibility of a “disarming” nuclear strike. 

“They have it in their strategy, in the documents it is spelled out – a preventive blow. We don’t. We, on the other hand, have formulated a retaliatory strike in our strategy,” Putin said.

Even if Russia were to retaliate immediately on seeing the launch of nuclear missiles towards it, Putin said, “This means that the fall of the warheads of enemy missiles on the territory of the Russian Federation is inevitable – they will still fall.” 

“So if we’re talking about this disarming strike, then maybe think about adopting the best practices of our American partners and their ideas for ensuring their security. We’re just thinking about it. No one was shy when they talked about it out loud in previous times and years,” he added. “If a potential adversary believes it is possible to use the theory of a preventive strike, and we do not, then this still makes us think about those threats that are posed to us.” 

Putin was speaking at a news conference in Bishkek. He described the preemptive nuclear strike as “applied to the control points, deprive the enemy of these control systems and so on,” implying that it could even prevent a retaliatory strike. 

Some background: On Wednesday, Putin acknowledged that the conflict is “going to take a while,” as he also warned of the “increasing” threat of nuclear war.

“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 Wednesday.

Putin’s comments come as the war enters winter, with Russia continuing to shell eastern and southern parts of Ukraine – and facing attacks on its own soil.

Biden administration officials have previously said that Moscow has been warned at the highest levels of the consequences for use of nuclear weapon in the war.

Pentagon announces $275 million in additional assistance for Ukraine

The Pentagon announced that an additional $275 million in security assistance for Ukraine has been approved. 

“This authorization is the Biden Administration’s twenty-seventh drawdown of equipment from DoD inventories for Ukraine since August 2021,” according to a statement from the Defense Department.

The package includes weapons and artillery rounds, as well as equipment to help Ukraine boost its air defense, according to the statement.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked the United States for its “unwavering support” in this country’s “fight against Russian aggression” in a tweet Friday.

“No missile terror will stop our fight for freedom! It is important that the people of the United States are side by side with the people of Ukraine in this struggle,” Zelensky said.

The Defense Department said the US have provided more than $19 billion in aide to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in February.

Ukraine says it has identified Russian commander who allegedly ordered troops to shoot at civilians

The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) says it has identified a Russian commander who ordered troops to fire at civilians in the early days of the invasion.

The SBU alleges that Lieutenant Colonel Yevgeniy Zelenov — a deputy commander in the Western Military District — ordered troops to shoot at civilian cars at the entrance to Kharkiv on Feb. 24, the first full day of the invasion. 

The SBU claims in a statement that on that day, Zelenov was commanding a Russian battalion-tactical group and “conducted active hostilities with the units of the Defense Forces in the eastern direction.”

“According to the investigation, his occupation group approached the Kharkiv ring road from the side of the village of Lyptsi and blocked the entrance to the regional center,” the SBU continues.

“At the same time, local residents who were traveling from the border settlements of the region demanded the traffic be unblocked and resisted the occupiers.”

The SBU claims that Zelenov ordered his subordinates to open fire on the cars with civilians.

CNN is reaching out to the Russian Defense Ministry for comment on the accusations. Russia has consistently denied targeting civilians in what it calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.

CNN's "Navalny" airs this weekend. Here's how to watch.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny attends a rally in support of political prisoners in Moscow, Russia, on September 29, 2019.

The CNN Film “Navalny” follows Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who was poisoned in August 2020 with a nerve agent during a flight to Moscow.

The film paints an intimate portrait of one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest critics and takes viewers inside the harrowing search for answers following his poisoning.

Directed by Daniel Roher, it won the best political documentary award at the 2022 Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards.

When and where to watch:

Saturday, Dec. 10 at 9 p.m. ET on CNN. You can also stream anytime on HBO Max.

Who is Navalny?

Navalny is a Russian opposition leader, Kremlin critic and activist. He has been a prominent organizer of street protests and has exposed corruption in the Russian government on social media.

Earlier this year, Navalny was sentenced to nine years in prison on fraud charges he said were politically motivated.

Where is Navalny now?

Navalny has been transferred into a solitary prison cell, according to tweets from himself and his staff, in what he described as a move designed to “shut me up.”

In his isolation, Navalny said he is allowed just two books, and his parents, children and wife can no longer see him.

Here's the official order Biden signed commuting Viktor Bout's sentence

President Joe Biden signed the official commutation for Viktor Bout last Friday, Dec. 2, according to the document that was posted on the Justice Department website.

The conditions of Bout’s commutation include that he not return to the United States and not profit from any book or movie about his arrest or release.

On Thursday, the White House said Bout’s commutation was not finalized until US officials saw Brittney Griner on the tarmac in Abu Dhabi. 

Here’s a look at the full document:

Brittney Griner has arrived at Texas Army medical center for routine evaluation 

Brittney Griner “arrived at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas early Friday, December 9, and was taken to Brooke Army Medical Center for a routine evaluation,” a State Department official confirmed.

“The US government is focused on ensuring that Brittney Griner and her family’s well-being are prioritized and that all assistance available be offered in an appropriate manner,” the official said. 

“Due to privacy reasons and out of respect to the family, we do not have anything additional to provide,” they said.

Griner was released from a Russian jail in a Thursday prisoner swap for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Pentagon has some "concern" about release of Viktor Bout in exchange for Brittney Griner's freedom

Alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout looks out from inside the detention center while waiting for a hearing on extradition to the United States charge at criminal court on May 19, 2009 in Bangkok, Thailand.

The Pentagon said Thursday there is some “concern” that Viktor Bout, who returned to Russia yesterday in a prisoner exchange for Brittney Griner, could return to the illicit international arms trade.

“I think there is a concern that he would return to doing the same kind of work that he’s done in the past,” a senior defense official told reporters after Bout’s release from US custody.

Bout is allegedly the most prolific arms dealer of the past decades, fueling conflicts in Africa and beyond. He was serving a 25-year prison sentence in the US on charges of conspiring to kill Americans, acquire and export anti-aircraft missiles, and provide material support to a terrorist organization.

The official said the Defense Department will continue to work with its partners in Africa to understand the current risk factors in the international arms trade.

“There are a number of actors out there who have influence in the Russian oligarchy,” the official said. “We will continue to work with African partners so that they understand the risks and the threats of the people that they’re working with and the organizations that they’re working with,” the official added.

Some critical infrastructure for electricity is "totally destroyed," Ukraine's infrastructure minister says

A high voltage substation stands partially destroyed after the Ukrenergo power station was hit by a missile strike on October 10 in central Ukraine.

Around 50% of Ukraine’s critical infrastructure for electricity have been “damaged more” and some has been “totally destroyed,” Oleksandr Kubrakov, the country’s infrastructure minister, has told CNN.

Ukraine was using “big bags of sand” to protect the targets, he added.

In a daily update to the energy situation across the country, the state energy supplier Ukrenergo maintained that the situation “remains difficult but under control”.

However, the company did admit that “all thermal and hydroelectric power plants are partially damaged,” and that the occupied Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant is not supplying electricity to the grid.

The company noted that that there will be little “major improvement” on the restoration of power across the country over the weekend. Russian shelling and missile strikes have continued to impact Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.

Kremlin critic Yashin calls his jail time sentence a "hysterical verdict" by the Moscow court

Russian opposition activist Ilya Yashin gestures as he stands inside a glass cubicle in a courtroom, prior to a hearing in Moscow, Russia, on December 9.

Russian opposition figure Ilya Yashin said on Friday that the “authors” of the “hysterical verdict” of a Moscow court handing him eight and a half years of jail time are “optimistic about Putin’s prospects,” according to a post on Yashin’s official Telegram account.

“The authors of the verdict are optimistic about Putin’s prospects. In my opinion, they are too optimistic,” he said.

“With this hysterical verdict, the government wants to intimidate us all, but in fact, it only shows its weakness.

“Strong leaders are calm and self-confident, and only weaklings seek to shut everyone up, burn out any dissent. So today it only remains for me to repeat what was said on the day of my arrest: I am not afraid, and you should not be,” the post added. 

The reaction came after a Moscow court announced the sentencing after finding Yashin guilty of spreading “false information” about the Russian army, according to Russian state media RIA Novosti.

“But we also have no reason to be sad, because we have won this trial, friends,” Yashin continued. “We spoke the truth about war crimes and called for an end to the bloodshed.”

Russian investigators said his statements about the circumstances of the killings in Bucha are a criminal offense under recently introduced legislation, which considers discrediting the Russian armed forces to be illegal.

Some background: Yashin, also a close ally of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, came to prominence during the protests between 2011 and 2012, which he helped organize against Putin’s re-election for the third term and unfair elections. Yashin remained a fierce Putin critic for years to come, also serving as a municipal deputy in small Moscow municipality before being barred from running for a public office.

It's mid-afternoon in Kyiv. Here's what you need to know

US basketball player Brittney Griner has landed in the US after being released in a high-profile prisoner swap.

And in Ukraine, settlements in the eastern Donetsk region and northeastern Kharkiv region have come under heavy Russian fire, officials said.

Here are the latest developments:

  • Griner lands in Texas: The WNBA star and Olympic gold medalist landed in San Antonio early Friday morning after being released from Russian custody in exchange for Viktor Bout, an alleged armed dealer who had been convicted by a US court of conspiring to kill Americans.
  • US-Russian relations not thawed: The exchange comes amid a deep chill in the Washington-Moscow relationship, and a spokesman for the Kremlin said it would be wrong to view the prisoner swap as a sign that the relationship between the two countries is improving.
  • Fighting in Ukraine: A Ukrainian military official said the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk remains the focus of Russian attacks. The head of the Kherson regional military administration said a hospital there was hit by Russian shelling on Friday morning. 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. 
  • Human rights concerns escalate: United Nations human rights chief Volker Turk said on Friday that Ukraine is a “human rights emergency” where people are suffering from both Russian attacks and the biting cold, without the ability to heat themselves due to damage wrought on energy infrastructure.
  • Progress on NATO accession: 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. “There can be no doubt on anyone’s part that they are ready today to be members of the alliance,” Blinken said.

Prominent Kremlin critic found guilty of spreading "false information" about Russia's army

Russian opposition activist Ilya Yashin stands inside a glass cubicle in a courtroom, prior to a hearing in Moscow, Russia, on December 9.

A Moscow court on Friday found Kremlin critic Ilya Yashin guilty of spreading “false information” about the Russian army, according to Russian state media TASS. 

Sentencing is expected later in the day. Yashin, a prominent opposition leader and former municipal deputy, faces up to nine years in prison.  

Russian investigators said his statements about the circumstances of the killings in Bucha are a criminal offense under recently introduced legislation, which considers discrediting the Russian armed forces to be illegal.

In his closing remarks to the court on Monday, Yashin said he was being prosecuted to “sew his mouth shut.”

“Everyone understands that this is the point. I am isolated from society because they want me to be silent. I promise as long as I’m alive I’ll never will be. My mission is to tell the truth. I will not give up the truth even behind bars,” he said, according to a post on Yashin’s official account on the encrypted messaging app Telegram.

Yashin, also a close ally of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, came to prominence during the protests between 2011 and 2012, which he helped organize against Putin’s re-election for the third term and unfair elections.  

Yashin remained a fierce Putin critic for years to come, also serving as a municipal deputy in small Moscow municipality before being barred from running for a public office.  

Bout-Griner swap doesn't mean US-Russia relations are improving, Kremlin says

In this handout video grab released by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), US basketball player Brittney Griner walks to board a plane prior to her departure in Moscow, Russia, on December 8.

The exchange of WNBA star Brittney Griner for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout is not a sign of improvements in the relations between Russia and the United States, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday. 

“The (Russia-US) negotiations dealt exclusively with the topic of the exchange,” Peskov told the Russian newspaper Izvestia. 

“It would be wrong to draw any hypothetical conclusions that this could be a step out of the crisis that we are having in bilateral relations. Bilateral relations remain in a sorry state,” he added. 

Peskov said the Kremlin wished Bout a “speedy rehabilitation” and said that the released prisoner is “well, but the doctors have yet to determine how healthy he is.”

Meanwhile, Bout’s wife Alla told state news agency TASS on Friday that he is “exhausted” and in a “terrible state.” 

“Viktor Anatolyevich (Bout) is in a terrible state, he is very exhausted. He had not slept for three days before that. This is due to the road, of course, and to the emotional component,” she said, adding that he was “treated very honorably, with respect” by the United States.

The Biden administration is confident that talks to free Paul Whalen will continue, a source says

Paul Whelan stands inside a defendants' cage during a hearing at a court in Moscow, Russia, on August 23, 2019.

The Biden administration believes the Russian government will continue to engage with the United States on the issue of Russian and US nationals detained in each others’ country, a senior administration official told CNN.

Moscow knows that the two sides will reach “a mutually acceptable arrangement if they keep talking to us,” the official said.

The official’s comments came as Brittney Griner was exchanged for Viktor Bout. Griner, a WNBA basketball player, was imprisoned in Russia and convicted of drug smuggling after being caught with less than a gram of cannabis oil in her luggage earlier this year. Bout, a convicted arms dealer, was serving a 25-year prison sentence in the US on charges of conspiring to kill Americans.

Another American, Paul Whelan, remains in Russian custody. Whelan, a former marine who is 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 convicted and sentenced in June 2020 to 16 years in prison in a trial US officials denounced as unfair.

“We have shown an openness to talk about that which is actually available to us and gotten only in response a demand for something not available to us,” the senior Biden administration official said, reiterating that the Russians refused what had been offered to secure the release of Whelan. 

CNN previously reported that convicted Russian murderer Vadim Krasikov, who is in German custody, was one of Moscow’s requests, and the official did not rule out that his release had been a continued request.

In an exclusive interview with CNN, Whelan said he was happy that Griner was released but was “greatly disappointed” that more had not been done to secure his release.

War-related demands: Demands related to the war in Ukraine, however, did not come up in the negotiations to secure Griner’s release and attempt to secure Whelan’s, the official said, adding that the US would not makes concessions on that front.