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Experts: Russian Officials to Use Brittney Griner Trial to Pressure USA to Negotiate

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured Columnist IVJune 30, 2022

KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images

The Russian government reportedly may use the trial of Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner as a way to extract political concessions from the United States, according to experts who spoke with ESPN's T.J. Quinn.

Griner, who has been determined wrongfully detained by the U.S. State Department, will stand trial Friday. She has been in custody for 133 days.

Quinn spoke to William Pomeranz, a Russian law expert, who said the trial's outcome is a "foregone conclusion."

Danielle Gilbert, an assistant professor of military and strategic studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy, described the trial to Quinn as a "negotiation strategy" by Russia.

"The trial—and the threat of a long sentence—gives the Russians more negotiating leverage," Gilbert said.

Because of the slim likelihood of getting a fair trial, Pomeranz told Quinn pleading guilty might be Griner's best strategy, and experts said a guilty plea could be a condition of any release agreement:

"Sources close to Griner declined to say how she intends to plead, but experts say that with no chance of acquittal it would make strategic sense to just plead guilty now. That might cause headaches for the U.S. State Department and the White House, but it could make Griner's life more bearable, and a deal to go home more likely."

This was one of the fears when news became public that Griner had been arrested at a Moscow airport in February for allegedly possessing vape cartridges of hashish oil in her luggage.

Quinn and Mechelle Voepel interviewed Tom Firestone, a former legal adviser at the United States embassy in Moscow, who said Griner's arrest could become a geopolitical issue if it garnered significant mainstream attention.

As a result, those close to the 31-year-old remained relatively quiet in the immediate aftermath of her arrest in the hope the matter could be resolved behind the scenes.

By May, the U.S. government signaled a shift in its approach when the State Department officially classified Griner as wrongfully detained. That allowed government officials to more aggressively negotiate for her release.

CNN's Jake Tapper asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken about exchanging convicted arms trafficker Viktor Bout for Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who was sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges in 2020.

"As a general proposition, Jake, I’ve got no higher priority than making sure that Americans who are being illegally detained in one way or another around the world come home, and that includes Paul Whelan and that includes Brittney Griner," Blinken said. "That includes people in a number of other countries. In fact, I spoke to Brittney Griner’s wife just a few days ago."

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