For Brittney Griner, there is one silver lining to Thursday’s harsh nine-year prison sentence handed down by a Russian judge.
Meaningful negotiations for a deal to bring the WNBA star home can finally begin.
In an attempt to foster the perception that Griner was receiving a fair trial and that their efforts to hold her were legitimate, Russian officials had insisted for weeks that they wouldn’t entertain a prisoner exchange until she was tried and sentenced. With Griner’s drug trial over, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters on Friday that the Kremlin is “ready to discuss this issue” but warned that Russia won’t tolerate public negotiations.
“There is a specified channel that has been agreed upon by [President Putin and President Biden], and despite some public statements, this retains its relevance," Lavrov said during a news conference at a diplomatic summit in Cambodia. “If the Americans still decide to engage in public diplomacy and make resounding statements about what they’re going to do now, then that is their business and even their problem.”
The U.S. has been eager to negotiate for weeks with pressure mounting on Biden to secure the release of Griner and fellow American prisoner Paul Whelan. That urgency only increased on Thursday when judge Anna Sotnikova rejected Griner’s emotional apology and plea for leniency for the “honest mistake” of bringing less than a gram of cannabis oil into Russia last February.
Standing outside the courthouse, Elizabeth Rood, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, called the ruling a "miscarriage of justice." Soon after that, Biden himself released a statement calling Griner’s sentence “unacceptable” and promising that his administration would “work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken had already sent a public message to Griner’s supporters that the U.S. was doing all it could to negotiate a deal. On July 27, Blinken took the extraordinary step of revealing at a news conference that the U.S had made a “substantial proposal” for Griner and Whelan “weeks ago” but hadn’t received a formal Russian response.
Blinken declined to share details of the offer, but he has not denied reports that Biden has signed off on trading a notorious Russian arms trafficker who has long been high on the Kremlin’s prisoner exchange wish list. Viktor Bout is serving a 25-year sentence in an Illinois federal prison for conspiring to kill Americans and sell weapons to Colombian terrorists.
Former State Department foreign services officer David Salvo told Yahoo Sports that Blinken’s public acknowledgment of an offer was a reaction to the attention that Griner’s detainment has garnered. The U.S.’s inability to secure Griner’s release has drawn criticism from her family and friends, the American media and celebrities such as LeBron James, Kim Kardashian and Amy Schumer.
“The messaging from Tony Blinken has been for domestic political consumption,” said Salvo, the deputy director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and an expert on Russian foreign policy. “There has been so much American attention on this case that I think he and senior administration officials felt like they couldn’t keep negotiations entirely behind closed doors. They had to show they were doing something. There were too many people who were browbeating them for not doing enough.”
And yet while Salvo understands the Biden administration’s rationale for going public with its offer, he admits he’s “pessimistic” about how that will impact diplomatic negotiations. Salvo says the “harsh reality” is that Russia can afford to drag out negotiations and let the pressure on the Biden administration continue to rise in hopes of prying more concessions from the U.S. than just the release of Bout.
“I would be very surprised if it ends up a 2-for-1 deal at this stage,” Salvo said. “The Russians will milk this for all it’s worth.”
It’s unclear who else besides Bout the Russians might target in a prisoner exchange. They reportedly requested to add former Russian intelligence officer Vadim Krasikov to the proposed swap, but U.S. officials labeled that a “bad faith” offer, pointing out that Krasikov is serving a life sentence in Germany after the murder of a former Chechen fighter in Berlin.
Negotiations between the U.S. and Russia are complicated by the hostility and mistrust between the two former Cold War adversaries. The relationship has only deteriorated further in the wake of Russia invading Ukraine and the U.S. imposing unprecedented economic sanctions.
As Griner has waited for the U.S. to strike a deal to bring her home, she hasn’t been able to do much to help her own cause. She couldn’t fight the inevitability of a guilty verdict in her trial. All she and her legal team could do was try in vain to make a case for a leniency in sentencing.
In her final statement to the judge at the end of closing arguments on Thursday, an emotional Griner apologized to her family, her teammates and her Russian club for "the embarrassment I brought on them." She reiterated that she packed in a hurry and accidentally brought the cannabis oil with her and pleaded with the judge not to “end my life” over a careless mistake.
"I know that everybody keeps talking about political pawns and politics, but I hope that is far from this courtroom,” Griner said. “I want to say again that I had no intent of breaking Russian laws. I had no intent. I did not conspire or plan to commit this crime."
While Griner’s attorneys intend to appeal the Russian court’s ruling, even they admit that's a long shot to improve her outlook. That means Griner will likely remain in Russian custody until a deal is struck to bring her home.
“Today’s sentencing of Brittney Griner was severe by Russian legal standards and goes to prove what we have known all along, that Brittney is being used as a political pawn,” Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, tweeted Thursday.
Kagawa Colas added that negotiating a prisoner swap for Griner and Whelan “will be hard, but it is urgent and it is the right thing to do.”