On Thursday, women’s basketball star Brittney Griner pled guilty in Russia to trumped-up charges of drug trafficking on only the second day of her trial, reportedly as a way to advance a prisoner exchange to gain her release back home. Such an exchange cannot come soon enough and the Biden administration must do everything in its power to speed it along after months of failure.
Griner’s saga has already lasted far too long and the Biden administration has been too slow to give it the attention it deserves. Hopefully, this week marks a pivot point, but it’s worth reviewing the history of her case to understand how she’s been let down so far and what needs to happen next. Griner’s guilty plea came one day after President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris finally spoke with Cherelle Griner, Brittney’s wife, as the WNBA star neared 140 days in Russian detention, where she has been held as a pawn in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Following the release of excerpts from a handwritten July 4 letter from Griner to the president—“I believe in you. I still have so much good to do with my freedom,” she pleaded from prison—the administration was forced to break the more than four months of silence that had grown between itself and Griner’s closest supporters—especially Cherelle.
Griner, a U.S. citizen, was arrested at the Sheremetyevo airport on Feb. 17—exactly one week before the invasion of Ukraine—and faces bogus charges of “large-scale transportation of drugs” over an alleged 0.7 grams of cannabis oil that Russian authorities say they found in her luggage. Despite Thursday’s guilty plea, the trial is expected to continue for weeks. When she is sentenced, Griner could face up to ten years in a penal colony. The murky nature of the charges against her is meant to conceal the truth: this was an ad hoc justification for her detention, and it remains totally ludicrous. Griner’s case bears all the hallmarks of so-called “hostage diplomacy.” But in the four months since she was taken hostage, the American government has consistently failed to rise to the occasion.
When Trevor Reed was released from Russian detention in an April 2022 prisoner swap with the pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken both released responses naming Paul Whelan, another former Marine jailed in Russia. But at that time—with Griner already having languished in Russian jail for months—they didn’t say a word about Griner.
It also took months for the State Department to declare Griner “wrongfully detained,” forwarding her case to the U.S.’ chief hostage negotiator—but the government did not explain why it had finally reached this determination. Until then, Griner’s family and friends had reportedly been “instructed to stay quiet about her situation in hopes that it could be resolved quickly behind the scenes,” an approach that has been criticized by the Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, who was wrongfully detained in Iran for 544 days.
On June 18, Griner’s fourth wedding anniversary, she called the American embassy in Moscow eleven times trying to reach her wife. Cherelle had planned to be awake at midnight to pick up the phone. It would have been the couple’s first time speaking in four months—but no one ever answered Brittney’s calls. The phone rang and rang at an unstaffed desk. The State Department called it a “logistical error.”
On the eve of Brittney’s trial, Cherelle told CNN that her government had lost her trust. “It would have been in her best interest for her phone call to have been answered,” she said. “It would be in her best interest to be back on U.S. soil.”
Asked in late June whether she still hoped to speak with President Biden about her wife’s detention, Cherelle said, “At this point it’s starting to feel like a no.” Before Wednesday’s call, such was the attention being paid to Griner’s family by an administration that claims it has “no higher priority” than bringing American hostages home. In Cherelle’s words, “the rhetoric and the actions don’t match.”
According to the White House’s readout, President Biden on Wednesday sent Griner a response letter, and reassured Cherelle “that he is working to secure Brittney’s release as soon as possible.” The statement added that Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan have also spoken with Cherelle in recent days. But the administration must do more than finally establish solid lines of connection with Griner’s camp—it must now do whatever it takes to secure her freedom.
For its part, the Kremlin claims it has nothing to do with the case. But in mid-May, Russian state media reported talks of swapping Griner for arms dealer Viktor Bout. A few days later, Forbes ran a story saying that the Biden administration had “offered” to trade Bout for Griner, citing a “non-government source in a position to know.” And a recent New York Times report quoting the judge who sentenced Bout to 25 years in U.S. federal prison suggests the swap is certainly plausible, though not guaranteed, as a strategy for bringing Griner—and possibly Whelan—home at last.
Griner’s detention is arbitrary in the sense that it is not based on tested legal principles or a trial of facts. She is the symbolic war prisoner of the Kremlin’s guilty conscience, and her detention is one of the many disgraceful acts of state that make up the fabric of Putin’s criminal conspiracy to seize Ukraine. Yet her value as a hostage only grows as the Biden administration continues to harden its stance against Russia and boost its military backing of Ukraine in what is now a withering war of attrition.
Griner may be the one of the only American tokens Russia has left, and we have every reason to fear that Putin’s regime will continue to wield her with malice. The Biden administration’s failure to act more urgently and decisively prior to now has made Griner’s position worse and worse. Hopefully, this week’s apparent change of course is permanent and Brittney Griner will be back home with Cherelle soon.