The way Brittney Griner will likely leave Russia is with a prisoner exchange, experts say. It would involve a complicated dance between governments and negotiators. The talks could last years.
All signs point to Brittney Griner being convicted in Russia on drug charges that could carry a sentence of up to 10 years. Conviction, even before Griner pleaded guilty “without intent” last week at her trial, was almost certain – less than 1% of cases in Russia end in acquittal.
The eight-time WNBA All-Star toiling for years in a Russian penal colony, however, is not the desired outcome for her supporters or the United States government, which has classified her as “wrongfully detained.”
“We know that she’s going to be convicted … so is there an exit strategy?” Rob Saale, a former FBI hostage negotiation expert, told USA TODAY Sports.
That “exit strategy” will manifest in the form of a prisoner swap with Russia, experts predict. In April, the U.S. brought back former Marine Trevor Reed – who had been sentenced to nine years on assault charges but began experiencing health problems while detained, his family said – from Russian prison by exchanging pilot and convicted drug trafficker Konstantin Yaroskenko.
“There’s not a lot of leverage the U.S. can pull to get the Russians to release her other than cutting a deal and releasing someone that’s in our jail here,” said Saale, who served as director of the U.S. Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell from 2017-19.
Saale does not consider Griner a hostage, however. Dani Gilbert, a Rosenwald Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy and International Security at the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College, initially agreed.She changed her mind when Russian media started floating the idea of a prisoner swap.
Gilbert also sees a phenomenon called “hostage diplomacy” – when a state uses the guise of law to take foreigners hostage – at play.
“Essentially, they use their criminal justice system under trumped up charges, under the farce of a legitimate process, when all they’re doing is using the foreigner for leverage in the negotiation,” Gilbert told USA TODAY Sports.
What the other party seeks from the U.S. varies by government. Iran, for example, not only seeks prisoner swaps, but additional foreign policy and diplomatic concessions. The U.S. levied economic sanctions on Russia after the invasion of the Ukraine in late February, just after Griner was arrested, and those sanctions could become part of the negotiations to free Griner.
“The principles of negotiation always apply,” said Gilbert, who taught a course called “Principles of Negotiation” at the U.S. Air Force Academy last year. “This is a case of hard bargaining.”
The complexity of the case makes the timeline for a homecoming in the “months to years, typically the years, category,” Gilbert said. Reed spent three years in Russian prison, while American Paul Whelan – also considered “wrongfully detained” – has been in Russian custody since 2018.
“It’s really hard to feel optimistic about a timeline,” she said.
The ‘Merchant of Death’
The Russian government will ultimately decide the outcome of the case, experts say, and the merits of the case will matter little. Griner could find leniency since she’s played professionally in Russia during the WNBA offseason since 2014. On Thursday, members of her Russian basketball team UMMC Ekaterinburg testified about Griner’s character and community impact. But her pre-trial detention could last until Dec. 20 if Russian authorities determine they want to delay a verdict. Lawyers for Griner said last week they expect a decision in early August.
“A political decision will now be made whether to be lenient or use her as a bargaining chip,” Russian legal expert Jamison Firestone told USA TODAY Sports. “I think she will almost certainly be sentenced to time in a prison camp, but they are either going to surprise us and be somewhat lenient with a short sentence (which she will then serve), or they will give her a long sentence and she will eventually be exchanged for someone.”
A prisoner swap happens through a combination of traditional diplomatic processes and the intercessions of non-government organizations. Inside the State Department, Griner’s case is being handled by the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, which was created in 2015. It is essentially the government’s chief hostage negotiator, Gilbert said, and the first entity she watches while trying to understand hostage cases.
The other is the Bill Richardson Center, headed by the former namesake governor and ambassador. It is a non-government, non-profit group that travels the world helping negotiate the release of Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained; ABC News has reported Richardson will travel to Moscow in the coming weeks.
“A trip to Moscow probably means more face-to-face negotiations for one or both of their cases,” Gilbert said of Griner and Whelan.
Bound to come up in those talks is the name Viktor Bout. Known as the “Merchant of Death,” Bout – a notorious arms dealer – was sentenced to 25 years in American prison in 2012 for conspiring to sell weapons to people who planned to kill Americans.
“He’s a bad dude,” Saale said.
Any deal involving him would involve multiple U.S. prisoners, Saale said.
“If they trade Viktor for somebody, it might be a 3-for-1 or something like that,” he said.
A troubling message
Swapping prisoners and making concessions, Saale said, is risky because it potentially puts Americans at risk abroad from enemy states, criminals or even terrorist organizations.
“Yeah, you get her or a couple of people out now,” he said. “But down the road, it sends a message to other countries that if you want something from the U.S. government you just take some Americans, trump up some charges.”
Many Americans traveling abroad are apprehended for drug crimes, University of Illinois law professor Peter Maggs told USA TODAY Sports.
“It’s hard for (the U.S. government) to pick one and put that person in a favored position,” said Maggs, who lived in Russia and is an expert on its legal system.
Gilbert said the Russians wanted Bout in the Reed deal, and Russian media began floating his name as part of any swap involving Griner in recent weeks.
“Is it fair? No, because fair implies a moral equivalence between these individuals that absolutely does not exist,” Gilbert said. “He’s a really bad dude.”
Asking for Bout is likely the opening gambit of the negotiations to bring Griner home, Gilbert said.
“The fact that the Russians are creating this image of a moral equivalence between the two is egregious and we should see it as such,” Gilbert said. “And at the same time, the U.S. has a vested interest in protecting our citizens and getting these people back from their wrongful detentions and horrible conditions that they might be in abroad.”
Contributing: Mike Freeman; Associated Press
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.