What will it take to bring Brittney Griner home?

·Senior Editor
·6 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

WNBA star Brittney Griner, who has spent the last several months in detention in Russia, appeared in court on Friday at the latest hearing of her ongoing drug trial.

Griner, who plays for a Russian team in the WNBA off-season, was arrested at a Moscow airport on Feb. 17 after authorities said they found vape charges containing about 0.7 grams of cannabis oil in her luggage. After several months in detention awaiting trial, she pleaded guilty last week to a single drug charge that carries a potential sentence of up to 10 years.

Despite Griner’s high profile, public discussion of her situation at home was initially muted, as friends and family apparently heeded advice from U.S. officials who said excess attention might complicate back-channel negotiations to secure her release. That changed in early May, when the State Department announced it determined Griner had been “wrongfully detained” and signaled it would work more aggressively to bring her home.

Since then, the Biden administration has faced increasing public pressure from those closest to Griner and the broader sports community. Her wife, Cherelle Griner, told the Associated Press last month that she had “zero trust in our government” after the State Department reportedly botched an attempt to allow the couple to speak over the phone on their wedding anniversary. She later said it was “disheartening” that she hadn’t been able to speak to the president directly. Biden did call Cherelle earlier this month and said he is “working to secure Brittney’s release as soon as possible.”

Griner was detained just a few days before Russian forces invaded Ukraine, setting off an extended and brutal war that has strained the already fraught diplomatic relationship between Washington and Moscow. Despite heightened tensions, the U.S. was able to negotiate the release in April of Trevor Reed, a former Marine who had spent three years in a Russian prison, as part of a prisoner swap. Reports suggest the Russians may be open to a similar trade to send Griner home, potentially in exchange for Viktor Bout — a notorious Russian arms trafficker who has been imprisoned in the U.S. since 2012.

Why there’s debate

Though a one-to-one prisoner swap may be the simplest way to get Griner back to the U.S., some experts worry about the implications of exchanging an American charged with a minor drug crime for a Russian who was such a prolific weapons smuggler he earned the moniker “Merchant of Death.” They argue that conceding to Moscow’s demands to release Bout might motivate the Russians, or other foreign adversary, to detain other Americans in hopes of leveraging a similar deal.

Some high-level American diplomats, including the former Russian ambassador, say it’s still worth releasing Bout if that’s what it takes to free Griner. Others argue that this imbalance creates room for the U.S. to make additional demands, specifically the release of Paul Whelan — an American citizen who has been in Russian detention on disputed espionage charges since 2018.

Beyond the diplomatic efforts to secure Griner’s release, there is also debate about how forceful her supporters in the U.S. should be in pressuring Biden. Many make the case that strong public criticism was needed to get the administration to take Griner’s situation seriously and will continue to be necessary so the matter doesn’t slip off of Biden’s agenda. But others warn that public outcry could actually undermine efforts to secure her release, since the Russians may feel they can make additional demands if they believe Biden is desperate to make a deal.

What’s next

A Russian official told American reporters that there are no reasons to “talk about any further steps” regarding potential resolutions to Griner’s situation until her trial is completed. The next hearing is scheduled for July 26, though experts say it is unclear how long it may take for a verdict and sentencing to be finalized.

Perspectives

The U.S. should be willing to accept the lesser side of a trade if it brings Griner home

“There is no parity in the negotiations or symmetry in the lives or actions of the two potential protagonists. But President Joe Biden should take the deal.” — Douglas Farah, Politico

Caving to Russian demands could put other Americans at risk

“This puts the United States in an extremely difficult position. A trade could win freedom for Ms. Griner but would encourage more hostage-taking; a refusal to trade would consign her to more agony in a Russian prison.” — Editorial, Washington Post

The American people aren’t nearly as outraged about Griner’s detention as they should be

“It turns out, the 6-foot-9 icon apparently isn’t famous enough. Brittney Griner is not only being held captive by the Russians, but also by her appearance and sexuality. She’s Black. She’s covered in tattoos. She has dreadlocks. She’s gay. She doesn’t fit America’s image of the ideal female athlete, so America is pretty much shrugging.” — Bill Plaschke, Los Angeles Times

It’s a difficult time for the U.S. to make any kind of concession to Russia

“​​In the big picture, the Biden administration doesn’t want to make concessions to Russia of any kind right now. We are applying close to maximum pressure on Russia in every way, arming Ukraine, pounding Russia with new economic sanctions at every opportunity, trying to essentially derail the Russian economy.” — Michael Crowley, New York Times

Persistent public pressure is needed to push the administration to take action

“We cannot exactly picket Putin’s house. But we can raise hell in our own country to demand that they step up diplomatic efforts to bring Brittney Griner home.” — Dave Zirin, MSNBC

It may be hard for both countries' leaders to put aside tensions around the war

“Can these two presidents agree on anything while Russian and American-supplied Ukrainian soldiers kill one another on the battlefield by the hundreds every day? Or while Biden declares Putin a ‘war criminal’ and Putin denounces even Western-influenced Russians as ‘scum and traitors’? Can their top negotiators even bargain seriously?” — Fred Kaplan, Slate

Pressure on Biden could make it harder for him to negotiate Griner’s return

“No one can blame the friends of Brittney Griner for pulling out all the stops to try to win her release. They are desperate. They are well meaning. The danger here is that their high-pressure campaign against Biden that underscores his powerlessness could become more valuable to Putin than any prisoner exchange. And that value will be lost the moment Griner is released from Russian captivity.” — Phil Boas, Arizona Republic

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images, Getty Images. (3)

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