Brittney Griner: Russia ‘ready to discuss’ prisoner swap as star jailed for nine years

Brittney Griner in a jail cell

Just one day after Brittney Griner was jailed, Russia has begun to budge about a possible prisoner swap to secure the queer basketball player’s freedom.

On Thursday (4 August), Moscow’s Khimki Court handed a nine-year sentence to the two-time US Olympic gold medallist for attempting to smuggle illegal drugs with criminal intent. It left Griner likely facing her jail time in a forced labour camp.

But Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Friday that the Kremlin is ready to hold talks with the White House about potentially exchanging Griner, as well as US Marine Paul Whelan, for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. Whelan was convicted of espionage and jailed for 16 years in 2020, after Russian authorities claimed he was caught with a flash drive that contained classified information.

Speaking at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit for foreign ministers, Lavrov said: “We are ready to discuss the issue [of a swap], but this should be done via the channel approved by the presidents, Putin and Biden.”

He referred to a backchannel set up by US president Joe Biden and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, adding that “no matter what the public says, this channel will remain in effect”, CNN reported.

“If the Americans decide to once again resort to public diplomacy,” he added, “that is their business and I would even say that is their problem.”

Lavrov’s American counterpart, Antony Blinken, said at the same summit diplomatic discussions have been opened between the two nations.

“We put forward, as you know, a substantial proposal that Russia should engage with us on,” he told reporters at a press briefing.

“And what foreign minister Lavrov said this morning and said publicly is that they are prepared to engage through channels we’ve established to do just that. And we’ll be pursuing that.”

The fate of Griner now hangs in the balance on whether Russian officials will agree to the pact, with the White House increasingly cranking up the pressure for Russia to do so.

US president Biden on Thursday called the Brittney Griner verdict “unacceptable” and “one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney”.

Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov (L) and US state secretary Antony Blinken (R) at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit foreign ministers meeting. (Andrew Harnik/pool/AFP via Getty Images)

“My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible,” he added in a White House statement.

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said the Biden administration has offered Russia a “serious proposal”.

“We urge them to accept it,” he said. “They should have accepted it weeks ago when we first made it.”

Moscow said it would remain tight-lipped about whether it would be open to a prisoner exchange until Griner’s trial was over. Though Russian officials have pressed for years for Bout’s release.

Bout, nicknamed the “Merchant of Death”, is serving a 25-year sentence in federal prison on charges including conspiring to kill Americans. One of the most high-profile Russians in US custody, he has been accused of flogging weapons to Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and militants in Rwanda.

Brittney Griner’s charges don’t quite compare to Bout’s. Sheremetyevo International Airport inspectors found cannabis oil in her luggage in February, leading to her months-long detainment, conviction and sentencing.

Lawmakers and activists alike were quick to criticise Russia for treating Griner as nothing more than a bargaining chip amid the ever-tense relations between Russia and US.

She pleaded guilty to the charges but stressed she had no criminal intent, having brought the cart drugs in a rush while packing.

“I never meant to hurt anybody, I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population, I never meant to break any laws here,” Griner told the court moments before her sentencing.

“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.”