A Russian court Thursday sentenced U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner to nine years in a penal colony after convicting her on a drug charge, a harsh penalty that keeps her fate entwined with the geopolitical showdown over the war in Ukraine and ramps up already intense pressure on President Joe Biden to win her release.
The U.S. government contends that she is among several Americans who have been “wrongfully detained” by Russia, used as bargaining chips in the increasingly hostile relationship between Moscow and Washington. The Biden administration has offered a prisoner swap involving Griner, but Russian officials said it was premature to discuss a deal while her case was underway.
Now that the trial is concluded, Biden faces a difficult choice between standing firm on his proposal to trade for Griner and another American, Paul Whelan, or sweetening the offer somehow, with either position liable to draw domestic criticism.
Meanwhile the Kremlin can use them as leverage, with no incentive to resolve the cases quickly. Griner’s supporters, voicing horror at the verdict and sentence, are clamoring for the president to do something, while the administration is wary of giving in to Russian tactics it has all but labeled blackmail.
“My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible,” Biden said in a statement after the verdict.
Griner, 31, one of her sport’s biggest global stars, sat mostly expressionless, eyes downcast, leaning her long frame toward the bars of the defendant’s box in a cramped courtroom outside Moscow to hear as the words of the judge, Anna Sotnikova, were quietly translated for her. She had already pleaded guilty, and conviction is all but certain in Russian courts, so the verdict was a foregone conclusion; the real question was about sentencing.
The answer was devastating. The sentence was near the 10-year maximum for her conviction for attempting to smuggle narcotics into the country, based on two vape cartridges containing hashish oil found in Griner’s luggage when she arrived in February, a week before President Vladimir Putin sent Russian forces to Ukraine.
She and her legal team had hoped for a more lenient penalty based on her guilty plea, her statement that she had not meant to take the cartridges to Russia, and testimony that she used the substance legally in the United States to manage pain.
“I made an honest mistake, and I hope that in your ruling that it doesn’t end my life here,” she said before the sentencing.
She told the court that while she took responsibility for her actions, “I had no intent to break Russian law.” She said that after recovering from a bout of COVID, she had packed hurriedly to rejoin the Russian team she plays for in the WNBA offseason, and had accidentally left the cartridges in her luggage.
Griner’s defense team called the ruling “absolutely unreasonable,” said the court had “completely ignored all the evidence of the defense, and most importantly, the guilty plea,” and vowed to appeal. Elizabeth Rood, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, attended the court session and called the result “a miscarriage of justice.”
Russian officials have insisted that Griner’s case is simply the justice system running its course, with no political overtones — a claim that their U.S. counterparts and many Western analysts dismissed as absurd.
William Pomeranz, a Russia expert and acting director of the Kennan Institute, a research group in Washington, noted that Griner was sentenced not to a prison but to a penal colony, which tends to mean a more remote location — many are in Siberia — and harsher conditions.
“She’s probably going to go to a penal colony that’s in the middle of Russia where she won’t know anybody,” he added. “They won’t be able to come and visit. Penal colonies can sometimes be very severe. It will be a tremendous test of her mental state if she ends up going to a penal colony.”
The United States has few options, he said. “It will just depend on the Russians and how fast they want to make a deal.”
Fellow basketball players, male and female, and basketball executives took to social media to voice support for Griner and grief at the verdict. Griner’s team, the Phoenix Mercury, said in a statement: “We remain heartbroken for her, as we have every day for nearly six months. We remain grateful to and confident in the public servants working every day to return her to her family and us.”
With Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and the indiscriminate destruction it has caused, relations between Washington and Moscow are more confrontational and bitter than they have been in decades. The United States has rallied the West to send arms and other aid to Ukraine, and to punish Moscow with economic sanctions, looking for opportunities to ratchet up the pressure.
The two sides have made prisoner exchanges before, most recently in April, when Russia released Trevor Reed, an American held on what his family said was a bogus assault charge, in return for a Russian pilot convicted in the United States of cocaine trafficking charges. But rarely have proposed swaps come amid such tension, or involved anyone as prominent as Griner.
In a sign of how high the stakes are for Washington, Griner’s fate was among the topics discussed last Friday by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, in their first direct conversation since before the invasion.
The Biden administration has offered to trade Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year sentence for a 2011 conviction on a federal charge of conspiring to sell weapons to people posing as terrorists intent on killing Americans. Whelan, detained in Russia since 2018, was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 16 years.
Russia made an unspecified “bad faith” counteroffer, the White House said Monday, which U.S. officials said they did not consider serious.
John Kirby, spokesperson for the National Security Council, told reporters Thursday, “I don’t think it would be helpful to Brittney or to Paul for us to talk more publicly about where we are in the talks and what the president might or might not be willing to do.”
“Conversations are ongoing at various levels,” he added.
If Biden sticks to his initial offer, he could face accusations of not doing enough.
Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, and other supporters have mounted an effective public campaign to pressure the president to win her release. Supporters worry about her treatment in a country where anti-American and anti-gay vitriol are deeply embedded in popular views and official propaganda. Images of a grim-faced Griner being led, handcuffed, in and out of court, towering over her armed guards, have become commonplace in U.S. and international media.
The administration could make a more attractive offer, but U.S. officials already worry that deals for prisoners could encourage hostile foreign governments to detain Americans on trumped-up charges in exchange for concessions like freeing their own wrongdoers. Some Republicans have already complained that Biden’s existing offer creates such an incentive.
A 6-foot-9 center, Griner won a college national championship with Baylor in 2012, a WNBA championship with the Mercury in 2014, Olympic gold medals with the U.S. team at the 2016 and 2020 games, and four EuroLeague championships with the Russian team UMMC Yekaterinburg. Like many players in the WNBA, where salaries are much lower than in the NBA, Griner — who also played one season for a professional team in China — has played overseas to supplement her income.