Brittney Griner was sentenced to nine years in Russian prison — but this was expected. Here’s what could happen next for the WNBA star.
“Daunting but expected sentence.”
This is how ESPN investigative reporter T.J. Quinn described Brittney Griner’s nine-year Russian prison sentence, which was announced on Aug. 4.
Quinn emphasizes that although harrowing for Griner and her supporters, this wasn’t a shocking development in her months-long detainment by Russian authorities. International legal experts have long expected that Griner’s situation would be resolved diplomatically, and recently, the United States publicly made headway in that regard, openly offering a prisoner swap exchanging Griner and fellow detained American Paul Whelan for Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms dealer.
As Griner’s fate is moved to the diplomatic world, here is what those following the case can expect in further developments.
What WNBA fans can expect after Brittney Griner is sentenced to nine years in Russian prison
Before the verdict came, Griner made an emotional plea to the courtroom, via CNN:
“I never meant to hurt anybody, I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population, I never meant to break any laws here. I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling that it doesn’t end my life here. I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that that is far from this courtroom.
I want to say again that I had no intent on breaking any Russian laws. I had no intent. I did not conspire or plan to commit this crime.”
Although Griner hoped that politics remained far from the courtroom, the reality is that international legal experts have expected this from the beginning. Griner’s charges carried a potential ten-year prison sentence, and although Griner was carrying less than a gram of cannabis oil which she has repeatedly stated was packed by accident, Griner’s status as one of the WNBA’s biggest stars meant that her detention has always been powerful.
With so much attention on Griner’s case, and with professional athletes and American citizens constantly pressuring the White House to negotiate for her release, Griner’s situation became a prime opportunity for Russia to negotiate for something they wanted: the repatriation of Viktor Bout.
Bout, who has been nicknamed the “Merchant of Death”, spent two decades selling arms to warlords, rebel groups and rogue states across the world, according to Reuters. Arrested in 2008, he is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States.
Even though other Americans, such as Whelan, are also sentenced to egregious Russian prison sentences — many of which the United States considers fall under “wrongful detainment” — no one reasonably expects Griner to serve her entire nine-year sentence. Detaining Griner and pushing for a nine-year sentence is considered a part of a Russian strategy to pressure the United States to release Bout. So far, it’s working: the White House has already confirmed that they will consider a swap including Bout, a fact which troubles those familiar with his war crimes.
“You cannot imagine how much I have emotionally struggled with the idea of Bout’s release,” said Kathi Austin, one of the individuals who helped put Bout in prison.
“Putin knew very well what he was doing by making Brittney Griner a bargaining chip… In a post-release situation… Putin is certain to weaponize Bout in areas of the world where the ‘Merchant of Death’ has a proven track record,” she continued.
Even though releasing Viktor Bout runs the risk of having Vladmir Putin weaponize him in Russian conflicts across the globe — including its continued occupation of Ukraine — the United States has made it clear that they will do anything to get back Brittney Griner.
Sadly, Griner and her loved ones are caught in the crosshairs of foreign policy that could have devastating, far-reaching effects. The United States is expected to continue to push for the release of Griner and Whelan, but when that swap will occur and what it will look like remains to be seen.