What happens next for Brittney Griner?

By pleading guilty to drug charges in a Russian courtroom this week, the American basketball star Brittney Griner has potentially accelerated her case’s conclusion, clearing a path for either a deal with the United States or, perhaps, a request for clemency.

With a guilty verdict an all but a foregone conclusion in a Russian legal system that heavily favors the prosecution, her best hope, experts say, is that the Biden administration secure her freedom by releasing a Russian held in the United States. The name of one prisoner in particular has emerged: Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year prison sentence.

But any such negotiation can take place only after the formalities of the Griner trial are over, Russian officials say.

“It is clear that we have not completed the necessary judicial procedures,” a deputy foreign minister, Sergei A. Ryabkov, told Russian news agencies on Thursday when asked about a potential exchange. “Until this happens, there are no nominal, formal or procedural grounds for any further steps.”

Ms. Griner still faces the conviction and sentencing phases of her trial, and her next date in court is scheduled for Thursday, July 14.

Ms. Griner is charged with illegal drug possession and with smuggling a “significant amount.” Appearing before a judge outside the Russian capital on the second day of her trial, Ms. Griner said she had unintentionally carried a banned substance into the country because she had packed in a hurry. The Russian authorities say they found vape cartridges with 0.7 grams of cannabis oil in her luggage when Ms. Griner arrived in February to play basketball, and she has been detained ever since, facing 10 years in prison in a penal colony.

Hours after her guilty plea Thursday, it appeared that her advisers might be laying the groundwork for diplomatic efforts between U.S. and Russian officials to take the lead.

“Considering the nature of her case, the insignificant amount of the substance and B.G.’s personality and history of positive contributions to global and Russian sport, the defense hopes that the plea will be considered by the court as a mitigating factor and there will be no severe sentence,” her legal team said in a statement.

American officials insist that they are doing all they can to secure the release of Ms. Griner, 31, a seven-time W.N.B.A. All-Star, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and the first openly gay athlete signed to an endorsement contract by Nike. At Thursday’s hearing, the chargé d’affaires at the American Embassy in Moscow, Elizabeth Rood, handed Ms. Griner a letter from President Biden.

But with tensions between the United States and Russia at their worst level in decades because of President Vladimir V. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Biden has few options to secure her freedom.

What to Know About Brittney Griner’s Detention in Russia

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What happened? In February, Russian authorities detained Brittney Griner, an American basketball player, on drug charges, after she was stopped at an airport near Moscow. Since then, her detention has been repeatedly extended. Ms. Griner’s trial began on July 1; she has pleaded guilty.

Why was she detained? Officials in Russia said they detained Ms. Griner after finding vape cartridges that contained hashish oil in her luggage. The officials said a criminal case has been opened into the large-scale transportation of drugs, which can carry a sentence of up to 10 years.

Why was she in Russia? Griner was in Russia playing for an international team during the W.N.B.A. off-season. Trading rest for overseas competition is common among the league’s players for many reasons, but often the biggest motivation is money.

Does this have anything to do with Ukraine? Ms. Griner’s detention comes during an inflamed standoff between Russia and the United States over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but it is still unclear whether Russia might have targeted Ms. Griner as leverage against the United States.

How is the United States approaching the situation? U.S. officials have seen Ms. Griner and said that she was “wrongfully detained,” adding that the government was working aggressively to bring her home. Two days after Ms. Griner sent a handwritten letter to President Biden asking him not to forget about her, President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with Cherelle Griner, the W.N.B.A. star’s wife, who had questioned whether the Biden administration is doing enough to bring her spouse home.

What are the possible outcomes? Legal experts are all but certain that the trial will end in a conviction. But the Kremlin might be also interested in a prisoner’s swap that would tie her fate to that of the Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving a prison sentence in the United States.

Mr. Ryabkov has hinted that Moscow was interested in negotiating over Ms. Griner’s fate, saying that she would be helped by “a serious reading by the American side of the signals that they received from Russia, from Moscow, through specialized channels.”

Russia’s Interfax news agency reported that on Friday, Mr. Ryabkov emphasized that any such negotiations should be conducted privately. “As for any exchange formulas, our stance is unwavering: This should be done in private, using the available channels,” he told reporters. “I am not sure that any additional activity, especially any activity conducted in public, can help reach a correct, balanced compromise.”

Without a deal, Ms. Griner could face years in prison.

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