Glimpses of Brittney Griner Show a Complicated Path to Release

The W.N.B.A. star’s appearances this week during her trial on drug charges in Russia highlighted the unclear path to her release and heightened her supporters’ concerns for her safety.

One hundred forty-one days. That is how long Brittney Griner has been behind bars in Russia. That is how long she has been stuck in the middle of a high-stakes staredown between the United States and Russia at exactly the wrong time, as President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia continues his horrendous invasion of Ukraine and echoes the return of the Cold War.

One hundred forty-one days. That is how long Griner has been in limbo.

What terrible uncertainty and fear she must feel, facing a decade in a Russian prison if she is convicted. Griner captured that emotion in her recent letter to President Biden. “I’m terrified I might be here forever,” she wrote. She added, “Please don’t forget about me.”

The seven-time All-Star center for the W.N.B.A.’s Phoenix Mercury pleaded guilty on Thursday, admitting wrong doing. In so many words, Griner and her lawyer said her troubles began with a mistake:

She was readying quickly for her flight to Russia in February and inadvertently packed the smoking cartridges with the small amounts of hashish oil — less than a single gram, according to prosecutors. She said she had no intention of breaking Russian law.

Experts say a guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion in a Russian legal system entirely stacked against defendants. Griner may have chosen not to fight a battle she could not win, helping speed her case to a conclusion.

We don’t know right now. The Mercury center’s teammates, supporters and wife, Cherelle Griner, have not been able to speak with her directly. 

With the war in Ukraine, all we in America have seen or heard from Griner has been from appearances at a Moscow-area courtroom that she has attended in handcuffs.

Uncertainty and complication hover over this awful affair. Russian media outlets have claimed that talks of a possible prisoner exchange are already underway, though U.S. officials have not confirmed this.

One floated swap would include Russian national Viktor Bout, who has been imprisoned in the United States since 2012 on a 25-year sentence for conspiring to sell weapons to people who said they planned to kill Americans. During his sentencing, prosecutors called Bout “among the world’s most successful and sophisticated arms traffickers.” He is known as the Merchant of Death.