The US government plane carrying Brittney Griner landed at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in the early hours of Friday morning after she spent nearly 10-months behind bars, the last weeks of which were served at a penal colony outside Moscow which could have been her home for the duration of the stiff 9-year sentence she was given for bringing cannabis vape cartridges into Russia.
Footage released by the Russian side showed the prior day's controversial prisoner swap at a UAE airport tarmac, which saw convicted international arms trafficker Victor Bout freed and given over the Russian officials. Later, he reportedly carried a bouquet of flowers as he emerged upon touching down in Moscow, and embraced his wife and mother.
Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, tweeted in announcing Griner's long-awaited return to US soil, "So happy to have Brittney back on U.S. soil. Welcome home BG!"
Given the US government had months ago officially deemed her 'wrongfully detained' - or essentially a hostage, she's expected to be taken to a nearby Army hospital for a health review and observation before returning to her family.
As for Bout's homecoming, the Kremlin continues hailing it as a 'victory' while saying he'll receive a hero's welcome. Russia's Human Rights Commissioner Tatiana Moskalkova went so far as to call Bout a "wonderful man who has become a victim of American insinuations."
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova claimed that embassies and officials around the world were receiving messages of support from "people in Russia and abroad." "Incredible!" Zakharova said on Telegram. "They are thanking the country."
There's speculation that Griner and Bout may have shaken hands, but which may have been edited out of the video footage:
You can tell Griner went in for a handshake with Viktor Bout and it was completely edited out. Watch her body language just before the edit. https://t.co/pNHar7lEjA— Rob Schmitt (@SchmittNYC) December 8, 2022
The 55-year old who became notorious for decades ago pouring tens of thousands of AK-47s and other weapons into brutal civil wars in Africa, many of which included widespread use of child soldiers, apparently has turned his focus on art:
His wife Alla said Bout's release was a "true New Year's gift."
She also said Bout planned to open an exhibition of his paintings in Saint Petersburg in April.
The movie "Lord of War," which is based on Viktor Bout, the man being exchanged for Brittney Griner, actually predicted his release from prison at the end of the film 👀pic.twitter.com/DTtYq9M7e9— JAKE BUCKLEY 🇦🇺 (@TheMasterBucks) December 9, 2022
Meanwhile, in the US controversy and criticism has continued to grow, with one prominent publication decrying the prisoner swap as essentially a "terrorist for a pot head" - while at the same time Americans Marc Fogel and Paul Whelan were left behind.
Marine veteran Paul Whelan, who was issued a 16-year sentence in 2020 on charges of espionage - which the US government condemned as false and unfair - told CNN this week that the Biden administration has actually done little to in attempting to secure his release.
"I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four year anniversary of my arrest is coming up," he said in the phone interview from a remote Russian penal colony. "I was arrested for a crime that never occurred," he added, before saying:
"I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here."
"I was led to believe that things were moving in the right direction, and that the governments were negotiating and that something would happen fairly soon," Whelan continued.
President Trump responds to the HORRIBLE Brittney Griner trade. pic.twitter.com/JQ7Ey23pZR— Alex Bruesewitz 🇺🇸 (@alexbruesewitz) December 8, 2022
Biden has sought to assure Whelan's family he's doing all that he can:
President Biden spoke Thursday afternoon with the sister of imprisoned Marine Paul Whelan, a U.S. official confirmed to CBS News.
The official said that Mr. Biden expressed to Elizabeth Whelan his commitment to bringing Paul Whelan home.
Mr. Biden has not himself yet spoken with Paul Whelan, the official added, in part because the Russians must approve all Whelan's communication to the outside world.
The Biden administration is claiming it had no choice. "This was not a situation where we had a choice of which American to bring home. It was a choice between bringing home one particular American – Brittney Griner – or bringing home none,” a US senior admin official said Thursday.