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The Latest on Brittney Griner’s Case

Date & Time

Aug. 2, 2022
3:30pm – 4:15pm ET


WNBA player Brittney Griner has been wrongfully detained in Russia since her arrest on February 17, 2022. Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon joined Kennan Institute Director William Pomeranz for a Twitter Spaces conversation on the latest developments from Griner's trial in Moscow, how her detention relates to Russia's war in Ukraine, and negotiations for a possible prisoner swap.


  • This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

    Victoria Pardini: Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Victoria Pardini and I'm a program associate at the Kennan Institute. Thank you all for joining us today for our Twitter Space to discuss the latest developments in Brittney Griner’s wrongful detainment and ongoing court case in Moscow. 

    Before we begin, I encourage you to stay up to date on the latest Kennan Institute events and publications by visiting our website and subscribing to our two blogs: Focus Ukraine and the Russia File, as well as our podcasts, KennanX and The Russia File. Also, visit our Hindsight Upfront: Ukraine collection on the Wilson website for the latest news and analysis focused on Ukraine and the ongoing war. If you'd like to ask our speakers a question today during our conversation, please submit it via direct message to the Wilson Center Twitter account, which is hosting this space.

    Let me begin by introducing our speakers before we jump into the conversation. William Pomeranz is the director at the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute and an expert guide to the Russian legal system. He leverages extensive hands-on experience in international and Russian jurisprudence to address a wide range of legal issues, from the development of Russia's constitution, to human rights law, to foreign investment and sanctions.

    He's also the author of Law and the Russian State: Russia's Legal Evolution from Peter the Great to Vladimir Putin. Will is joining us from the Kennan Institute account. Hi Will, great to have you in the Space.

    William Pomeranz:Glad to be here.

    Victoria Pardini: Also with us is Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon. Kimberly is a doctoral student in history at the University of Pennsylvania. Her work examines the intersections of Black experience and Soviet understandings of race and nationality. She's given several media appearances and consulted with the WNBA Players Union about Brittney Griner’s case. Kimberly, thank you for joining us today.

    Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon: Thank you for having me.

    Victoria Pardini: Great. As a reminder, if you'd like to ask our speakers a question, please submit it via direct message to the Wilson Center Twitter account, which is hosting the space. So, let's just jump right in. Let's start by reviewing the background of this case. Why was Brittney Griner in Russia, and why was she arrested on February 17th? Either of you can start. Will, how about you start?

    William Pomeranz:Well, Brittney Griner was in Russia because she is playing for Yekaterinburg, a Russian basketball team. And she basically plays in Russia over the summer to supplement her income. Russia has a very advanced women's basketball league, and she was there to participate and to play in that league.

    Victoria Pardini: Great. What's happened so far, and what's happened today in court?

    William Pomeranz: Today, she's just made some statements and they're going to be moving on to final arguments on Thursday [August 4, 2022]. But basically, she's tried to explain how these cartridges got into her possession. She says that she didn't have any intent to bring drugs into the Russian Federation and that simply she forgot about these cartridges when she was packing. So she's tried to basically say that she had no intent and has asked for leniency in the Russian judicial system.

    Victoria Pardini: So, Kimberly, I'd like to turn to you. About the leniency in the Russian legal system, do you think that- At this point, how is Brittney being treated by the Russian legal system? And what kind of outcome do you think it's fair to assume in this case?

    Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon: So compared both to Americans who've been detained in custody, but also to how Russian citizens are treated when in custody, when they are in prison or facing trial, I think she has been treated relatively well. She had embassy access earlier than other detained Americans, such as Trevor Reed and Paul Whalen. She also had, you know, a letter written to her by President Biden.

    But in general, the way she's treated in Russia, she has, from what has been reported in the Russian state media and some other places, she has a very small number of people in her cell with her. I think she has two cellmates, both of whom are nonviolent offenders who are also somewhat conversational in English, so she's not necessarily alone.

    And I think a big thing that has gotten a lot of attention in American media is how we've seen Brittney Griner testifying in the courtroom from, you know, a metal or an iron cage, but also how she's been transported hours from where she's being held in Khimki to outside of Moscow. And while I think for many Americans, it's jarring to see her in these conditions, these are pretty much standard fare for people who are held in custody in Russia. [Alexei] Navalny is in a similar situation. So was [Mikhail] Khodorkovsky. So these well-known Russian dissidents have also been held in similar situations. So I think keeping that in mind, she's been treated relatively well.

    Victoria Pardini: You also, both of you, touch a bit on the public opinion aspect of it. How is this case being viewed by Russians?

    William Pomeranz: Well, I think that the Russians are just looking at the evidence, and basically trying to figure out how she got implicated into the Russian judicial system. Clearly, there are not a lot of supporters of Brittney Griner in the sense that Russia does not acquit very many defendants. Indeed, they have a 99% conviction rate.

    So I think that it hasn't really parlayed into a national movement, or a real demonstration of political opposition or so forth. I think that in light of the Russian legal system’s proclivities, I think that basically she's been perceived as someone who has gotten caught and who now is in the midst of the Russian legal system. And as others have said, that Russian criminal legal system has a 99% conviction rate. So obviously, there are not a lot of people who are contending or saying that she will likely be acquitted. There is a strong, strong probability that she will be convicted.

    Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon: And to piggyback off of William’s comments, I think this is a key part in terms of the role of Russian public opinion and how small of a role it does play in the Russian criminal justice system, and the way it could influence the way that the judge is going to work- it's very small. 

    But also, since the war in Ukraine has started, Russian public opinion in Russian public outlets that aren't tied to the state have been completely repressed. There's essentially no independent media in Russia. So thinking about that, how are Russians getting information about the case? It’s going to be from the state. Whatever the state is saying is probably what most Russians are to get to. And her case hasn't really been played up to a large extent in Russia. It really is more waiting to see how it plays out.

    But the line has really been, you know, an American came to this country and broke the law and is going through the Russian legal system, just as Russians would have to go through in their American system. So I think we've seen more conversations for sure in America and more influence in American public opinion than what we've seen in Russia.

    But also, I think the important thing that William said is, not only the 99% conviction rate for Russia, but also when we think about leniency in the Russian criminal justice system, the big charge that [Brittney]'s facing - the sentencing guidelines are five to ten years. So leniency most likely would be five years instead of a ten year sentence. So I think that's something a lot of Americans have to think about and prepare themselves for as we get closer to a, you know, a conviction and a sentencing date.

    Victoria Pardini: Thank you both. Just as a quick reminder, if you'd like to ask our speakers a question during this conversation, please submit it via direct message to the Wilson Center Twitter account, which is hosting this space. 

    So we talked about this [case] specifically in Russia. Can we talk now about how this has become a large diplomatic conversation? What indications do we have that Brittney is being detained as a political bargaining chip by Russia?

    William Pomeranz: Well, essentially, because she has been detained with such a small amount of cannabis, it's quite clear that the Russians potentially could use this, and use her detention and ultimate conviction, as a bargaining chip for a variety of things. So, for example if the idea is to somehow get leniency, or Russia wants to play hardball with this case, then obviously Russia is going to say in order to get Brittney out of Russia, there must be a change in the sanctions regime. Or there must be some sort of change in the diplomatic relations between the United States and Russia. 

    So I think that this is a very interesting diplomatic issue, and I think it's going to be a diplomatic question. As we have said, her chances of conviction are basically 99%. So if we're going to get Brittney out of Russia, then it will have to be from a diplomatic standpoint. And quite frankly, Russia and the United States are simply not talking to each other.

    Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon: These are excellent points, and I can completely agree. But also thinking about the optics of diplomacy. For so long while the State Department is working on this, you had more and more calls from people—from people from America in particular—to get Brittney out. And I think what has happened has been a learning curve in which many Americans have had to learn that, you know, diplomacy is a two-way street, and America can make demands that Russia release Brittney Griner, but it's still going to be up to Russia to meet those demands. And as the news has broken about the possible prisoner exchange, keeping that in mind an exchange requires two parties. And so we know the United States has put a deal on the table. It's going to be up to Russia how they respond to that deal. And so we have to keep that in mind—that Brittney is not held in the United States, she's held in Putin's Russia. And all of that is going to influence her case. 

    And one last thing, I think in terms of diplomacy, it is important that the first phone call that Secretary Blinken has had with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov happened last week because of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan's detainment. They weren't—the top of the line was talking about these Americans who were detained, and it wasn't necessarily the war in Ukraine. So while Brittany's detainment, I would argue, is still very much a result of the Russian war in Ukraine—because of its timing and when it was made public to the United States—the fact that this phone call focused on these detained Americans, I think kind of shows us just how important it is to the United States and the Biden administration to get them released.

    Victoria Pardini: Thank you both. So we just had a question coming from Barbara Usher, the BBC's State Department correspondent. And she kind of touches on what you were mentioning, Kimberly. So why do you think the administration has taken the very unusual step of going public with its offer to Russia? Some call it, I think, megaphone diplomacy. Is it domestic pressure? Is it related to the complicated relations with Russia due to the Ukraine war? Domestic pressure, she clarified, is to say domestic pressure from families in the US and the WNBA.

    Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon: So I can take this one. I think it's a combination of all of those things. And this comes from my personal experience, knowing the initial approach of Brittney's family in the WNBA was to kind of keep quiet, to allow the State Department to do its job. And I think as time has gone on, and you've seen more and more public pressure—domestic pressure on the Biden administration—I think they would have had to come out and say they were doing something.

    But in regards to the deal—and not necessarily the details of the deal, Secretary Blinken talked about an exchange, but I think that CNN broke the news of who would be involved in that exchange—I think what we're seeing now in terms of the media reaction, the public reaction to that has been interesting. Because now I think we see the nuances of the deal, because people are talking about Viktor Bout and what he means in terms of, you know, national security, but also what he can mean to the Ukrainian effort against Russia. So it's a very complicated situation. But I think that it was putting their best foot forward to be more public about it because there was so much domestic pressure on the Biden administration. And it's better to kind of relieve some of that pressure than allow Russia in any way, shape, or form to manipulate that pressure, particularly when midterms are coming up in the next few months.

    Victoria Pardini: Right. Absolutely.

    William Pomeranz: Just a brief comment on that. So, yes, the United States wanted to put some sort of pressure on Russia. But in fact, Russia really holds all the cards and all the leverage. And Russia will not be rushed in terms of releasing Brittney Griner or any other American prisoner. And Russia is basically going to set the terms of the deal because the United States has said so prominently that they want to try to get Brittney Griner out. So from a negotiating standpoint, Russia has most of the cards, because the administration has emphasized, you know, what a priority it is to get Brittney Griner out. But obviously, the Russians will decide on what conditions, and what payback and concessions they want.

    Victoria Pardini: Thank you both. So you both touched a bit on the prisoner swap element. So realistically, based on what you've said about Russia holding the cards in this negotiation and the Biden administration making clear their aims and releasing Brittney Griner. What do you think about this possibly leading to a release for Brittney Griner and other US detainees like Paul Whelan. Is this possible? Is this something that we might be able to see in the near-ish term?

    William Pomeranz: It is possible, but I really can't estimate how long it's going to take to get these two people released. Paul Whelan has been convicted. Brittney Griner has pleaded guilty. All of these prisoners are potential bargaining chips for the Russian Federation. So I don't think that necessarily Russia believes that it has to release or commence a prisoner swap quickly. Viktor Bout has been in U.S. prison for more than ten years. And although they basically want to try to get Viktor Bout out of U.S. prison, I think that Russia is not in any hurry, from their perspective, to make a concession, especially in light of sanctions.

    Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon: I completely agree. And I think this needs to be emphasized—Russia holds the keys and all the cards here in terms of timing, and in terms of what a release could look like. And so keeping that in mind, I think as people anticipate a sentence coming down in the next few weeks that in no way, shape, or form means Russia has to respond to a deal any time soon.I think that's one of the negative parts of the Biden administration being so public about its demands to bring Brittany home, is that Russia knows how much leverage it has now. 

    And I'm so glad that William brought up sanctions. I've made this argument from day one that her imprisonment—Brittney Griner’s imprisonment, detainment—is going to be intimately tied to the war in Ukraine. So we have to think about that, too, as the United States is one of the biggest military and financial aid supporters in the fight against Russia. You know, we have to think about that, too, because Russia is definitely considering it when it thinks about this trade.

    Victoria Pardini: Thank you. Yeah, I think that a really critical element of this entire conversation is, you know, the timing of it. It really helps with Russia's own negotiating stance. Just a reminder that if you would like to ask our speakers a question during the conversation, please submit it via direct message to the Wilson Center Twitter account, which is hosting that space.

    We did receive a question on Twitter about Mark Fogle. Is he going to be included in any potential prisoner swap? Why has his name been left behind when discussing American political prisoners in Russia? Any thoughts on that?

    William Pomeranz: Well, I think Mark Fogle is the third person who is in the mix. But I think it has to, from the Russian perspective, the United States has to agree to add more than just Viktor Bout in the exchange. If we want to do a two-to-one exchange or a three-to-one exchange, Victor Bout is an important asset for the Russian Federation. But in order to make a deal, it really requires a touch of diplomacy. And the more concessions that the United States makes, the potential is that the Russians will ask for more concessions. Because as was previously said, Russia in many ways is in the driver's seat in these negotiations.

    Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon: So for Mark Fogle, this is obviously the least well-known American who's been detained in Russia. I mean, I think that could be for multiple reasons. But what's interesting is that his case and his charges are very similar to those that Brittney Garner is facing, you know, allegedly found with drug paraphernalia and things at an airport. So I think the key issue here is, one, how few people knew about Americans who were detained in Russia before Brittney Griner’s arrest. Most people didn't know about Trevor Reed, or Paul Whalen, or Mark Vogel. And now that people are more aware of it, it is a matter of publicity. And Paul Whelan's family didn't have as much publicity…. But now Americans know about the situation. So I think that's beneficial for Mark Vogel, and Paul Whalen, and Brittney Griner, as so many Americans are aware of their detainment now. 

    But at the end of the day, it is dealing with Russia, and they've already said a two-for-one deal is going to be very difficult for America to pull off, so a three-for-one deal is probably not going to happen. They're going to up what they want and what they ask for. But once again, this comes to pressure. There is a reason why—I would argue it’s because of public pressure—that Brittney Griner has gotten so much attention. But Paul Whalen's family has also continued to apply pressure on the Biden administration. They've just been more vocal. So a lack of publicity could also be why Mark Vogel has kind of been left out of these conversations.

    Victoria Pardini: Okay. That's really interesting. Thank you, Kimberly and Will. We got another question through our DM. They ask, can the panelists speak to the impact gender has had, if at all, on Brittney's detainment and treatment?

    Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon: So this is a good question. And when the news initially broke of Brittney Griner detainment, some of the key concerns were her race and her sexual identity. But her gender, in some ways, makes it a little bit better, because there are just more men in prison and in jails in Russia than women or people who identify as women. So in that way, it's a better situation because there are just fewer people. You have less overcrowding. But also in terms of her celebrity, I think, is more important. Her celebrity is more important than necessarily her gender. But just in general, women's institutions tend to be better kept and less full than men's institutions in Russia.

    Victoria Pardini: Do you think—just following up on that, Kimberly— is the celebrity aspect pretty much the predominant factor for Brittney's case? Over things that are clearly, otherwise issues in Russia, such as on issues of racial inequality, gender inequality, things like that.

    Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon: I'd argue that it is. And this is because the ways in which we've seen the state media talk about her case and, you know, for the longest time, really up until two weeks ago, her race wasn't really discussed. Only lately, I think Maria Butina posted a Telegram calling her like “a sad black drug user.” And it was really the first time I'd really seen someone connected to the state talk about her race. But what is most important, I think, for her worth to Russia is her celebrity. And it's because her celebrity puts immense pressure on the United States to get her out. So I think that's what matters most. Her identities matter most in America, and because they matter in America, it means much more to Russia than vice versa, if that makes sense.

    William Pomeranz: Yes. And Brittney Griner is a celebrity in the United States, but not a major celebrity in the Russian Federation. And I think that her case has really not been reported a lot in the mainstream Russian media. And I think that basically Russians don't expect any defendant to get a fair shake in their criminal justice system. So I don't think that there is a groundswell within Russia of opinion that would put pressure on the Russian state Great.

    Victoria Pardini: Great, thank you both. So I guess the next question, or— I'm watching the questions come in. But another question that needs to be asked is what's next in the process for Brittney? And then also, what's next in the process in terms of any type of negotiation between Russia and the United States?

    William Pomeranz: Well, what's next for Brittney is that, I believe that closing arguments will be made on Thursday, and then the judge will issue the verdict. And as Kimberly has said, there's a 99% conviction rate. So most likely Brittney will be convicted. And quite frankly, the negotiations will start after Brittney is convicted. Because I think that is the part of the Russian Federation that is most predictable, that this defendant—that this case will lead to a conviction. And then once she has been convicted, the negotiations will continue on a diplomatic level.

    Victoria Pardini: Sorry about that. Okay. Well, I don't see that we have any other questions coming on Twitter. We might close this a bit early, but is there anything else that, Will or Kimberly, either of you would like to add, or anything that you think people need to know about this case?

    William Pomeranz: Go ahead, Kimberly.

    Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon: Thank you. I think what I would emphasize here is patience and recognizing that because Russia has the cards, Russia gets to dictate the pace in which we have any kind of prisoner exchange or release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whalen. And remembering that, because as we get further into this situation, as people get more and more frustrated, most people are going to be angry at the Biden administration, right? They’re going to be mad at the State Department because nothing is being done. But the levers are going to move slowly. That's how this process works. I think we need to remember that, and also reinforce that we're dealing with the Russian criminal justice system. It is not the American criminal justice system. And there are significant differences between those two.

    William Pomeranz: Yes, I agree. And the fact that she is stuck in the Russian prison system means that we have much less leverage in terms of trying to get her out. And really, the only leverage that we have is to somehow make a diplomatic deal. But that deal can be derailed for a whole variety of reasons, not just because of the issues involved, but because of the war in Ukraine, and because, you know, the United States is supplying a significant amount of weaponry to Ukraine. The battle continues. 

    There is also going to be the question of annexation of some Ukrainian territory by the Russian Federation. So the Russians basically, as Kimberly said, hold a lot of cards in terms of the timetable as to when this will occur, and really under what conditions Brittney Griner will be released. And that may be not what the United States wants, but that is really what is dictated by the events in the Russian Federation.

    Victoria Pardini: Well, thank you both so much for really breaking down this issue and for your expertise and really, I mean, succinct but super informative responses to all of our questions. 

    Thank you for joining us today on our Twitter space. We hope to have more of these coming up for you in the future. Again, please visit our website if you'd like to stay up-to-date with upcoming events and publications, as well as our podcast, KennanX and the Russia File.

    Will, Kimberly, thank you again and we'll see you all next time—or hear you all next time. Bye.

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