For Britney Greiner, there is an upside to the harsh nine-year prison sentence handed down by a Russian judge on Thursday.
Meaningful negotiations could finally begin for a deal to bring the WNBA star home.
In an effort to bolster the perception that Greiner was receiving a fair trial and that their efforts to detain her were legitimate, Russian officials insisted for weeks that they would not accept a prisoner exchange until she had been tried and sentenced. As Grener’s drug trial ended, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Kremlin was “ready to discuss this issue” but warned that Russia would not tolerate public negotiations.
There is a specific channel that has been agreed upon [President Putin and President Biden]Despite some public statements, this still retains its significance, Lavrov said during a press conference at a diplomatic summit in Cambodia. “If the Americans decide to engage in public diplomacy and make resounding statements about what they are going to do now, that is their job and even their problem.”
The US has been negotiating for weeks as pressure mounts on Biden to secure the release of Greiner and fellow US prisoner Paul Whelan. That urgency only increased on Thursday when Judge Anna Sotnikova rejected Greiner’s emotional apology and asked for leniency over the “honest mistake” of bringing less than one gram of cannabis oil into Russia last February.
Standing outside the courtroom, Elizabeth Rudd, deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Moscow, called the ruling a “miscarriage of justice.” Shortly thereafter, Biden himself issued a statement calling Greiner’s ruling “unacceptable” and promising that his administration would “work tirelessly and pursue all possible avenues to bring Britney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken had already sent a public message to Greiner’s supporters that the United States was doing all it could to negotiate a deal. On July 27, Blinken took the extraordinary step of revealing at a press conference that the United States had made a “substantial proposal” to Greener and Whelan “weeks ago” but had not received an official Russian response.
Blinken declined to share details of the offer, but did not deny reports that Biden had agreed to trade a notorious Russian arms smuggler who had long been high on the Kremlin’s wish list for a prisoner exchange. He is serving a 25-year sentence in a federal prison in Illinois for conspiracy to kill Americans and selling weapons to Colombian terrorists.
Former State Department Foreign Services officer David Salvo told Yahoo Sports that Blinken’s public admission of the offer was a reaction to the attention received by Greiner’s arrest. The inability of the United States to secure Graner’s release has drawn criticism from her family, friends, the US media, and celebrities such as LeBron James, Kim Kardashian and Amy Schumer.
“The messages were from Tony Blinken for domestic political consumption,” said Salvo, deputy director of the Alliance for Democracy and an expert on Russian foreign policy. There has been so much American interest in this issue that I think he and senior administration officials felt they could not keep the negotiations entirely behind closed doors. They had to show that they were doing something. There were a lot of people who were messing around with them because they didn’t do enough.”
However, while Salvo understands the Biden administration’s rationale for making its presentation public, he admits he is “pessimistic” about how this will affect diplomatic negotiations. The “harsh reality,” Salvo says, is that Russia can afford to prolong negotiations and allow pressure on the Biden administration to continue to mount in hopes of extracting more concessions from the United States rather than simply releasing Bout.
“I would be very surprised if it ended up being a 2-for-1 deal at this point,” Salvo said. “The Russians will take this for all it’s worth.”
It is not clear who other than the bot the Russians might target in the prisoner exchange. They reportedly requested that former Russian intelligence officer Vadim Krasikov be added to the proposed swap, but US officials called the offer “bad faith,” noting that Krasikov is serving a life sentence in Germany after the murder of a former Chechen fighter in Berlin.
Negotiations between the United States and Russia are complicated by hostility and mistrust between the two former Cold War foes. The relationship deteriorated further in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the imposition of unprecedented economic sanctions by the United States.
Since Greiner waited for the United States to strike a deal to bring her home, she was unable to do much to help her cause. She couldn’t fight the inevitability of a guilty verdict at her trial. All she and her legal team can do is try in vain to file a case for leniency in sentencing.
In her final statement to the judge at the end of her closing arguments on Thursday, Greiner emotionally apologized to her family, teammates and her Russian club for the “embarrassment it brought them.” She reiterated that she hastily packed and accidentally brought cannabis oil with her and pleaded with the judge not to “end my life” for a negligent error.
Greiner said, “I know everyone keeps talking about political pawns and politics, but I hope it’s out of this courtroom. I want to say again that I had no intention of breaking Russian laws. I had no intention. I did not plot or plot. to commit this crime.”
While Griner’s lawyers plan to appeal the Russian court’s ruling, they admit that this is a long opportunity to improve her outward appearance. This means Greiner will likely remain in Russian custody until a deal is struck to bring her home.
“Today’s sentencing of Britney Greiner was harsh by Russian legal standards and demonstrates what we have known all along, that Britney is being used as a political pawn,” Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, wrote on Twitter Thursday.
Kagawa Colas added that negotiating a prisoner swap for Graner and Whelan “will be difficult, but it is urgent and is the right thing to do.”
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