Joe Biden celebrated basketball star Brittney Griner’s release on Thursday, but was criticised for handing a notorious arms dealer to Russia in return and failing to free another imprisoned American.
Griner, 32, a two-time Olympic gold medallist and LGBTQ icon, was arrested in Moscow on drug charges just days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Customs officials at a Moscow airport said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage.
The WNBA star said she had permission from a US doctor to use medicinal cannabis for her injuries, but she was convicted of drug smuggling and sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony in what the US called a “show trial”.
Standing beside Griner’s wife, Cherelle, at the White House, Mr Biden said: “Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones.”
In exchange, Mr Biden released Viktor Bout, a prolific weapons trafficker nicknamed “the Merchant of Death”.
Once one of the world’s most wanted men, Bout, 55, evaded sanctions to sell weaponry to rogue states and murderous warlords.
'This is a surrender'
Critics decried Bout’s release at a time when Russia is scrambling to boost weapon stocks for the Ukraine war.
John Bolton, the former US national security adviser, said: “This is not a swap. This is a surrender. And terrorists and rogue states all around the world will take note of this, and it endangers other Americans.”
Terrell Jermaine Starr, from the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Centre, said Bout’s release will “likely cause problems for US allies”.
The White House hit back at the claims, with one senior official telling reporters: “There sometimes are no alternatives... And a heavy price has to be paid.”
Sergei Markov, a former Kremlin adviser, said the Russian president had “outplayed” Mr Biden.
“We got back our spy, it seems, and gave away a normal girl,” he wrote on his Telegram channel.
It came as Mr Putin vowed to continue striking Ukraine’s energy sources, in rare and apparently unguarded comments while quaffing champagne at a Kremlin reception.
“There’s a lot of noise about our strikes on the energy infrastructure of a neighbouring country. Yes, we do that. But who started it?” the Russian president said.
Mr Biden faced significant domestic pressure to secure the release of Griner.
In his White House address, Mr Biden said Griner had endured detention in “intolerable circumstances” but was in “good spirits”.
He embraced Griner’s wife, Cherelle, who said she was “overwhelmed with emotions” after the “darkest moments of my life”.
But some Republicans said the swap was a costly, missed opportunity to free Paul Whelan, a former US marine jailed for nearly four years in Russia.
Congressman Mike Waltz tweeted: “Celebrities over veterans?”
Mr Biden said the US “will never give up” on Mr Whelan, 52, who is being held on espionage charges the US said are baseless.
A senior US official said Moscow rejected “multiple” proposals to secure Mr Whelan’s release.
“It was bringing Brittney Griner home right now or bringing no American home right now,” the official said.
Mr Whelan’s brother, David, said the Biden Administration “made the right decision” to bring Griner home, “rather than waiting for [a deal] that wasn’t going to happen”.
But speaking from his Russian cell, Mr Whelan told CNN he felt “greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release”.
Saudi Arabia omitted from remarks
Bout, who was serving a 25-year sentence in the US, was also flown home on Thursday, Russia’s foreign ministry confirmed. The exchange took place in Abu-Dhabi.
In a joint statement, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) said they led the mediation efforts.
Mr Biden thanked the UAE for its role but notably omitted Saudi Arabia in his remarks.
The White House denied that Saudi Arabia was involved in the exchange.
“The only countries that negotiated this deal were the United States and Russia,” Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said. There was no mediation involved.
Meanwhile MBS met with Xi Jinping, the Chinese president on Thursday, a visit that earned a rebuke from Washington as Beijing seeks to grow its influence in the Gulf state.
Mr Xi and the Crown Prince will sign deals worth about $30 billion, as China boosts its Covid-hit economy and the Saudis, long-term US allies, push to diversify their economic and political ties.
In response, the White House warned China’s “influence” campaign was “not conducive to preserving the international rules based order”.