U.S. offers deal to Russia for release of WNBA star Brittney Griner

For months, both Brittney Griner and the U.S. State Department have been carefully measured in everything they said about her detainment in Russia on drug charges. And then came Wednesday.

First, Griner testified in court, telling the judge that when she was arrested Feb. 17 she was denied proper translation, wasn’t read her rights, was denied access to a lawyer and was coerced by her interpreter into signing papers she couldn’t understand. Her testimony marked a notable shift from her “keep your head down and don’t make waves” strategy. She’ll find out if it had any effect next week: Sources expect a verdict and sentence Aug. 5.

A few hours after Griner’s court appearance, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the United States had made a “substantial proposition” weeks ago to secure the release of Griner and Paul Whelan, another American whom the government considers to be a wrongful detainee. Blinken wasn’t specific, but as he started his briefing, CNN reported that the United States had offered to trade Viktor Bout, the notorious Russian arms dealer who is doing a 25-year sentence in the United States, and Blinken passed up a chance to deny the story.

Blinken also said he soon would speak with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and will demand the release of Griner and Whelan.

Griner’s and Blinken’s comments were a big deal. What they said answered a few questions but raised a lot more. Here’s what we know and what we don’t know. (Spoiler: There’s a lot of “don’t know.”)

What is the significance of Blinken’s comments?

What we know now is that one lingering question — is the Biden administration willing to trade for prisoners? — has been answered. Some in the administration had argued that trading someone like Bout would create a dangerous precedent. Others had argued that the incentive to kidnap Americans is already significant and the only sensible solution is to cut a deal to bring Griner and Whelan home. Blinken’s announcement made it clear that the debate ended a while ago.

What we also know is that his comments are a major shift in messaging. In recent weeks, Russia has been critical of U.S. accusations that Griner was wrongfully detained, saying the U.S. needs to butt out and let Griner’s trial run its course. Griner’s trial is nearing the end, but this was a strong pushback that the United States isn’t going to pretend that her trial is legitimate.

What don’t we know? For one, we don’t know …

Why now?

What prompted the administration to announce a deal that was supposedly offered weeks ago?

Sources have said that Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who has been negotiating Griner’s release, had hoped he could travel to Russia by now to try to wrap up a potential deal. But with Blinken saying he’s going to tell Lavrov directly that Russia must release Griner and Whelan, it would appear Blinken is making it impossible for Russia to agree to a trade without looking like it caved to U.S. demands. (Russia said Wednesday that Lavrov had not received an invitation to speak.)

So what changed?

It didn’t take long for speculation to start Wednesday afternoon.

Was it to fend off domestic criticism that the administration isn’t doing enough?

Was it because a deal had seemed close and then suddenly fell apart?

Was it because the United States is concerned that Griner will be hit with a long sentence, possibly as much as 10 years, and needs to prepare the American public?

Best to remember what numerous experts and government officials have said: With negotiations like this, there is usually way more to the story, and there’s a good chance we’ll never know what changed.

What does this do for Griner’s timetable?

Her family and supporters are prepared for the possibility that she’ll be sentenced to the full 10 years.

But all along, the real timeline anyone has been concerned about is when the two countries can reach a deal that brings her home. And that’s the ultimate “unknown” in her case.

We know that Russia has said it won’t discuss a deal for Griner until her trial is complete. We also have a pretty good idea that Russia has been discussing a deal (or at least had been), but doesn’t want that to be public. It would seem that a deal is not imminent if Blinken hasn’t even had the conversation with Lavrov yet. But, again, we don’t know what we don’t know.

What’s the significance of what Griner said in court?

All along, Griner’s legal team has been operating by the well-established principle that in a Russian criminal trial there is little you can do to change your fortune for the better, but it’s very easy to make it worse.

She pleaded guilty, knowing that a guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion. She said she broke the law inadvertently. She said she took responsibility for her actions. When asked by a journalist Tuesday if she had any complaints, she said “no.” She did nothing to ruffle the feathers of the Russian court or government.

But her testimony Wednesday was the first time she was critical of her treatment. Several sources familiar with her case said they took her testimony as a message to the international community, as well as her Russian captors: Russia wants us to treat this like a legitimate trial, but when the judge hands down that lengthy sentence the world will know Russia didn’t even follow its own laws.

What are Griner’s representatives saying about this?

So far, nothing. Sources reached Wednesday said they were trying to absorb all of this, and that they’re not sure what to make of it, either.

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