Brittney Griner during a hearing in Khimki, Russia, outside Moscow on Aug. 4. Photo: Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool/AFP via Getty Images
UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg in October helped give a renewed push to the negotiations between the U.S. and Russia that eventually led to the release of basketball star Brittney Griner, a source with direct knowledge of the issue told Axios.
The big picture: The UAE’s efforts to facilitate Griner’s release were part of a wider strategy by the Emiratis to use its relations with the U.S. and Russia to help solve specific issues related to the war in Ukraine, the source said.
Behind the scenes: The negotiations on the prisoner swap were done directly between the U.S. and Russia, but in early October, the two sides appeared to be at a stalemate. The Russians had rejected every U.S. prisoner swap proposal that included both Griner and jailed American Paul Whelan, a senior administration official told reporters last week.
- As bin Zayed, known as MBZ, prepared his trip to Russia, he began planning the issues he would raise with Putin, including possible prisoner swaps, the situation at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, and the status of the Sumy ammonia plant, according to the source.
- The source said that Emirati officials discussed the planned meeting in advance with the Biden administration and told the U.S. they were going to raise the issue of prisoner swaps and Griner’s case specifically.
When MBZ met Putin on Oct. 11, he told the Russian president that the UAE would try to help facilitate the possible scenario in which Griner was swapped for arms dealer Viktor Bout.
- That meeting helped jump-start the U.S.-Russia negotiations again, according to the source.
Between the lines: The source said that the UAE didn’t negotiate the terms of the deal, but it did help put together the choreography for its implementation.
- Because of the poor relations between the U.S. and Russia and the political costs, neither country wanted to make a direct swap and needed a third party to facilitate it, according to the source.
- The source said that for several weeks, the UAE spoke separately with the U.S. and Russia to build a plan for implementing the potential swap. Making the swap in Abu Dhabi was part of it.
- A day before the swap, MBZ spoke to Putin to close the last details. Only then it was clear that the deal was going forward, the source said. The time for the swap was set for Dec. 8 at 4pm in Abu Dhabi.
What they’re saying: The White House referred me to statements last week by U.S. officials. President Biden last week thanked the UAE “for helping to facilitate” Griner’s return.
- The senior administration official told reporters last week the U.S. asked several governments to raise the issue of Griner’s release with the Russians.
- Biden made the decision to go ahead with the one-for-one swap in the week before Griner’s release, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Thursday.
- An Emirati official declined to comment on the specifics of the UAE’s role, but the country issued a statement last week announcing the “success” of its efforts.
What’s next: MBZ wants to continue to push for more prisoner swaps between Russia and Ukraine, the source said. The Emiratis hope this could lead to more substantial diplomacy between Russia and Ukraine.