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First Move with Julia Chatterley
Athlete Freed in an Exchange for Russian Arms Dealer Viktor Bout; Biden Says He'll Never give up" on getting Paul Whelan Home; Brittney Griner Free; Brittney Griner Freed in Exchange for Convicted Arms Dealer. Aired 9:35-10a ET
Aired December 08, 2022 - 09:35 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JULIA CHATTERLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Julia Chatterley in New York and recapping our breaking news this Thursday. And its great news the U.S.
basketball star Brittney Griner has been freed from a Russian jail in a prisoner swap. U.S. President Joe Biden hailing that releases describing
Griner as an incomparable athlete who showed grit and incredible dignity.
The notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout was handed over as part of that deal with the exchange taking place at Abu Dhabi airport. We've also learned the
exchange was mediated by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. It was a one-for-one swap and unfortunately, the American Paul Whelan, who has now
been in custody for almost four years, was not part of the deal. Just listen in to what the U.S. president had to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: We never forgot about Brittany, we've not forgotten about Paul Whelan, who has been unjustly
detained in Russia for years. This was not a choice of which American to bring home.
We brought home Trevor Reid when we had a chance earlier this year. Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons Russia is treating Paul's case differently
than Brittany's. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul's release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CHATTERLEY: Kylie Atwood joins us now. Kylie and that's the truth really, in many ways, it's a bittersweet day. It's wonderful news for Brittney and
her family. It's heartbreaking news for Paul and his family. And both those of families have recognized that today to which we've seen, but the
president also said this was the only deal. And they took it.
KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN U.S. SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right. In the words of President Biden, this was not a choice, clearly indicating that
the Russians were only willing to offer up a deal that included Brittney Griner here and excluded Paul Whelan. And we should know that U.S.
officials for months have been trying to secure a deal for both of those Americans who are wrongfully detained.
And just to remind folks, Brittney Griner was detained in Russia just days before the Russian invasion into Ukraine back in February about 10 months
ago. She just was moved to a penal colony in Russia just last month. And then Paul Whelan was detained and his sentence based on charges of
espionage, which he vehemently denies. That was about four years ago.
So he has been there for much longer, but clearly a very joyful day for the family of Brittney Griner. And we should note for all of those who have
been really pushing for her release, she is an American basketball star. She has galvanized the support from the LGBTQ community, the African
American community, all of them really pushing the White House to make sure that she got out of Russian detention.
Now, of course, she was detained because she carried in cannabis oil when she was in Russia playing basketball there. She says it was a mistake. She
didn't mean to carry that cannabis into the country, but she was still sentenced to nine years in prison and will be heading home today.
Now, the Secretary of State said that the senior State Department official, Roger Carstens, who has been working on this, is with Brittney Griner.
They're on their way home. And of course, we should know what does the next step looks like in terms of securing Paul Whelan's release.
Because, as you were saying both of these families, acknowledging that this was a happy day for Brittney Griner's family, but a very emotional day for
Paul Whelan's family. And we heard from Paul Whelan's brother who said this was the right choice of the Biden Administration to secure a deal while
they could instead of not holding out for a deal that wasn't going to happen.
ATWOOD: But he raised the question as to what is it going to take now for Russia to secure Paul Whelan, because we know that Viktor Bout, who was
part of this prisoner swap today is really the person that the Russians had been wanting released from his prison sentence here in the United States.
CHATTERLEY: Yes, and something that the Justice Department once described as the world's most prolific arms dealer. So it is a deal that's going to
come under huge scrutiny, I think to as good as it is to get her home. Kylie Atwood, thank you so much for that report there.
I want to bring in Fred Pleitgen now to get his take. Fred, I know you reported extensively on the trial that Brittney Griner underwent. But I do
want to get your take, please, on the Russian side of this and we've seen sort of back and forth stops and starts in this negotiating process. Why
now, I think would be my first question?
FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That is a very good question and I think also a very important question. If we look at
some of the way that these negotiations have been taking place, because you're absolutely right, there were extreme ups and downs. And at some
point, it seemed as though the talks were completely breaking down.
First of all, I think Kylie is absolutely right to say that the Russians have always said that, Viktor Bout is very important to them. They have
said that a lot more in the past couple of months, that it's someone that they definitely want to bring back to Russia, obviously, someone who's very
well connected in the Russian elite.
But if we look at the way that all of this went down over the past couple of months, from the moment that the United States made clear that Brittany
Griner was in Russian custody, that they felt that she was wrongfully detained.
But then the U.S. said that they had made public that they had put what they call a substantial offer on the table. And the Russians were
completely irate about that. They said that negotiations like that needs to happen behind closed doors, none of that can be discussed in public. And
quite frankly, the Russians threatened to allow those talks to break down.
And then over the past couple of weeks, the Russians sort of softened their position a little bit, you've heard the Deputy Foreign Minister come out
and say, yes, Viktor Bout is of course, someone that the Russians want to bring home. And they say they've been trying to bring him home for a very
But one of the things, Julia that we picked up on just about a week ago, the Russians then said that they believed that there were not going to be
any new talks about prisoner swaps until the end of the year. And now we have what has happened today with that swap, actually going through.
So definitely, as one would expect a very in-transparent process, certainly the Russian saying all that needed to happen behind closed doors. But I
think that the Russians definitely feel that having gotten Viktor Bout back; they think they have the longer end of the stick.
It's somewhat they've been lobbying to get back for a very long time to read the statement that the Russian Foreign Ministry put out there. They
said that that for a very long time, the United States was the ones would not wanted to put Viktor Bout up for such a prisoner swap. Now that swap
And of course, as you can imagine, it's a big deal in Russian state run media and the Russian Foreign Ministry as well. They obviously are very
happy that this went through the timing of it, of course, is definitely very, very interesting considering some of the ups and downs that we've
seen over the past couple of months, Julia.
CHATTERLEY: Yes and we'll continue to ask that question, Fred, great to have you with us, thank you, Fred Pleitgen there. OK, coming up more on the
release of Brittney Griner and the fight to get more Americans from Russian prisons, stay with us, more to come.
CHATTERLEY: Welcome back. U.S. woman's basketball star Brittney Griner has been released from Russian custody after spending months in prison on a
drug charge. Griner was freed in exchange for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout held in the United States. Bucha attorney told CNN the swap is
"fair". The man nicknamed The Merchant of Death has been in U.S. custody now for 15 years. Bucha attorney says he has been reunited with his family
CNN International Security Editor Nick Paton Walsh is the last journalist to have interviewed Viktor Bout and he is with us now. Nick, I'd love to
get your views on whether you see this as fair for a woman who says she accidentally took some cannabis oil into Russia, compared to this
individual who's notorious, your view.
NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: It's absolutely ludicrous that the two are being swapped in terms of justice or crimes.
Yes, as you said, Griner essentially, by mistake, it seems carrying a tiny amount of cannabis oil. Viktor Bout crimes he denies been accused by UN
investigators by analysts of essentially being one of the most prolific arms dealers in history, certainly across Africa, in the 90s and in the
He's always denied this, but there's always been this extraordinary paradox. Why is this man who says listen, I was just a pilot and a
businessman and a pretty good merchant in some of these conflict zones, shipping in materials people needed. Why is Moscow so utterly obsessed in
getting him back to Russia? If indeed that's all he's ever done.
The accusers against Bout say, well, perhaps he grew up in the intelligence services in Africa with people who went on to be closely with Vladimir
Putin. That's something he also denies. So, you know, it's always been exceptionally hard to elucidate quite to the real man Viktor Bout.
But there's always been a slight sort of wink-wink in his entourage that may be the truth about him was more complex. I've seen home videos of him
in Africa, what looked to be military training camps with key political figures there. So clearly, he was a man who mixed in circles that certainly
validated some of the allegations against him again, which he denies but also to an outside character, not somebody who simply quietly says no, none
of this is true.
A man who talks about his relationships with key figures in Afghanistan in Africa, who clearly knew everybody he's a polyglot, he speaks multiple
languages. He speaks Sanskrit, I was e-mailing with him while he was in U.S. facility and he talks about how he was brushing up on his languages,
he's yoga --there.
Very charming individual, I have to say sometimes people are accused of diabolical things do have charm and character on their side at times. But
certainly a man have an outsize personality certainly and one who had an extraordinary value to Moscow that they, it seems, assisted his defense
while he was in Bangkok, trying not to get extradited to the United States have now put this enormous diplomatic pressure on the United States.
And indeed given up this high profile American Sport star in an exchange at the worst point in U.S. Russian relations potentially since the Cuban
Missile Crisis you might even argue, so a staggering moment for diplomacy. But one also to let us remind you of how important Viktor Bout is and
probably how his career history is possibly significantly more interesting than the denials you'd hear from his entourage. Julia?
CHATTERLEY: Yes and clearly a great imports to Russia at this moment to be described as fair, a fair exchange in this point. Nick Paton Walsh, thank
you so much for that. OK, coming up, our coverage of the release of Brittney Griner continues.
CHATTERLEY: And we're back with our top story this hour. Professional basketball star Brittney Griner is with U.S. officials aboard a plane on
her way home after being freed from a Russian jail and a prisoner swap deal with convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
U.S. President Joe Biden described Griner as an incomparable athlete who showed grit and incredible dignity. We also learned the exchange was
secured by joint mediation between the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Joining us now for some perspective is CNN International Diplomatic Editor, Nic Robertson.
Nic, I do think the mediation here is a fascinating angle to bring in. But I do also want to get your wisdom and your views on the timing here,
particularly as we look through the prism of developments currently, with the war in Ukraine and perhaps Putin's desire to garner some degree of
approval leverage, could we call it with the United States in the West?
NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes. Julia, I think we can certainly see that the conversations have been going on between the
United States and Russia. And it appears that the Saudi Crown Prince and the President of the UAE, Mohammed bin Zayed have both been playing a role
in helping the mediation certainly that is what the Saudi press agency is saying.
And interesting that as you read through their comments that that statement from the Saudi press agency, you can see the actual place of the physical
transfer of Viktor Bout and Brittney Griner was in the UAE. I mean, this sounds like looks like maybe we didn't see it.
How the prisoner exchanges are in the movie, there's a piece of common ground, people are bought in and an exchange is made. And this very much
appears to be what's happened in this case. In the context of the war in Ukraine, of course, none of this means that there's a relationship
developing between Putin and Biden.
That means that there the likelihood of an end of the war or discussion between the pair of them about the war. However, President Putin sees
President Biden as the principle vehicle to put pressure on Ukraine. President Putin didn't have to release Brittney Griner.
The fact that he has given President Biden such a great public relations gift, as you will, if you will, back home in the United States, speaks to
the fact that Putin here is trying to curry good favor with Biden, because he wants Biden's pressure on Ukraine to agree to Putin's terms for peace in
Ukraine because the war hasn't been going well for Putin and he does want to secure a peace on his terms.
I don't think we can go any further than that. But it does speak to the point that conversations despite tensions over the war, conversations
between diplomats, perhaps between intermediaries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE are possible and do go on at a time like this.
CHATTERLEY: Nic, tied exactly to what you were saying there and perhaps the importance of timing and the desire to curry favor with you U.S. President
Joe Biden, would you argue then at this point that it is far more actually about that in the release of Brittney Griner than perhaps it is the desire
to have Viktor Bout back?
CHATTERLEY: Whoever he is, as an individual, be knowledgeable, intelligent about the workings of, of the Kremlin and intelligence officials. It's far
more about her than it is about him.
ROBERTSON: You know it's very hard to make those clear judgments, isn't it? Because we don't really know what Viktor Bout really knew and what value
that has in today's current terms for the Kremlin. We can certainly expect the Kremlin to want to give them a thorough grilling and to know they're
not getting back a double agent of some description.
But he is as best we know the most important person that the Russians could have conceivably asked to get back in an exchange with Brittney Griner. It
stands up to the sniff test of one for one valuable to the Russians, valuable to the United States. But I think you know the fact that Viktor
Bout has been held for a long time already.
The fact that he's been through trial, the fact that he's been in the U.S. jail, whatever information he was going to give up could well have been
given up some time ago. So I think this speaks to the fact that this is Putin knowing that the timing is good for him to offer up Brittney Griner,
he didn't have to do it now. He is despite miscalculating woefully in the war in Ukraine is a reasonably good strategic calculator.
CHATTERLEY: Nic Robertson, thank you so much for that. And that's it for the show. We'll have more coverage of the releases of the basketball star
Brittney Griner right after this, stay with CNN.