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Brittney Griner’s Sentence Renews Pressure on President Biden

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WASHINGTON — Immediately after a Moscow judge handed down Brittney Griner’s nine-year prison sentence on Thursday, calls grew louder for President Biden to search out a option to bring her home.

“We call on President Biden and america government to redouble their efforts to do whatever is vital and possible,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said in an announcement.

U.S. officials and analysts had been resigned to a guilty verdict for Ms. Griner, a basketball star who plays for a Russian team through the W.N.B.A. off-season. However the cold reality of her sentence on a drug charge was a shock and renewed calls for Mr. Biden to secure her release — at the same time as critics fumed that offering to swap prisoners with Moscow rewards Russian hostage-taking.

The result’s a painful quandary for the Biden administration because it tries to keep up a tough line against President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia over his war in Ukraine.

“There’s nothing good here,” said Andrea Schneider, an authority on international conflict resolution at Cardozo School of Law. “Irrespective of what Biden does, he’s going to be criticized — either that we’re giving an excessive amount of or we’re not working hard enough.”

Kremlin officials had said that any potential deal couldn’t proceed before her trial was complete, making a glimmer of hope that the decision might open the door for an exchange. But analysts called that unlikely anytime soon.

“I don’t think that is going to get resolved quickly,” said Jared Genser, a human rights lawyer who represents Americans held by foreign governments. “I feel the undeniable fact that Putin has not said yes instantly implies that he’s checked out the U.S. offer and said, ‘Well, that’s their first offer. I can get greater than that.’”

That U.S. offer, first presented to Russia in June, sought the discharge of Ms. Griner and Paul N. Whelan, a former Marine arrested in Moscow and convicted of espionage in 2020.

The Biden administration proposed to trade the 2 Americans for the notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who’s midway through a 25-year federal prison sentence for offering to sell arms to a Colombian rebel group that america then considered a terrorist organization.

The proposal has already reshaped U.S. diplomacy toward Russia, which had been frozen at senior levels since Mr. Putin’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. A phone call concerning the matter on July 29 between Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, was their first conversation for the reason that war began. Nevertheless it appeared to go away the Kremlin unmoved. The White House says Russia has made an unspecified “bad faith” counteroffer that america just isn’t taking seriously.

What to Know Concerning the Brittney Griner Case

On Friday, Mr. Lavrov told reporters that the 2 nations would proceed discussing the difficulty through established channels. He repeated the Kremlin’s insistence that america not discuss the negotiations in public, though Russian media outlets began linking Mr. Bout’s case to Ms. Griner’s early this summer.

However the pressure is lopsided. While Mr. Putin has long sought Mr. Bout’s release, perhaps out of loyalty to a person with deep ties to Russia’s security state, the arms dealer’s continued imprisonment costs Mr. Putin little. Time, in other words, is in Mr. Putin’s favor.

Mr. Biden, however, finds himself squeezed from two sides.

On one side are Ms. Griner’s supporters. Her wife, Cherelle Griner, has made public pleas for Mr. Biden to chop a cope with Mr. Putin as soon as possible. Those pleas have been echoed by Mr. Sharpton, Democratic activist groups, television pundits, pro athletes and celebrities on social media. (Mr. Sharpton on Thursday also called for the discharge of Mr. Whelan.)

“How could she feel like America has her back?” the N.B.A. superstar LeBron James said in mid-July. “I could be feeling like, ‘Do I even need to return to America?’”

That was before Mr. Biden’s proposal to free Mr. Bout became public. Officials said they disclosed the offer, which was confirmed last week by an individual briefed on the talks, to extend pressure on Russia. However the revelation could have also reflected a desire to point out Ms. Griner’s backers that Mr. Biden was not sitting on his hands.

“We imagine it’s vital for the American people to understand how hard President Biden is working to get Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan home,” John F. Kirby, a White House national security spokesman, said on the time. “We predict it’s vital for his or her families to understand how hard we’re working on this.”

The American basketball star has endured months in a Russian prison on charges of smuggling hashish oil into the country.

After Ms. Griner was sentenced on Thursday, Mr. Biden renewed his commitment to “pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”

The White House wouldn’t say how Mr. Biden might achieve that goal, nevertheless. “I don’t think it will be helpful to Brittany or to Paul for us to speak more publicly about where we’re within the talks and what the president might or may not be willing to do,” Mr. Kirby said.

But almost any additional offers would make sure to amplify criticism from Mr. Biden’s other flank — and charges that Mr. Biden was bending to extortion by Mr. Putin, a person he has called a war criminal.

“For this reason dictatorships — like Venezuela, Iran, China, Russia — take Americans hostage, because they know they’ll get something for it,” Rep. Mike Waltz, Republican of Florida, told Newsmax last week. “They know eventually some administration pays. And this just puts a goal on the back of each American on the market.”

Mike Pompeo, the previous secretary of state, echoed the criticism in a Fox News interview last week, saying that to free Mr. Bout would “likely result in more” Americans being arrested abroad. And former President Donald J. Trump, who when in office prided himself on freeing detained Americans abroad, slammed the proposed deal in crude terms.

Mr. Bout, he said, was “absolutely one among the worst on this planet, and he’s going to be given his freedom because a potentially spoiled person goes into Russia loaded up with drugs.” (Russian officials who detained Ms. Griner at a Moscow-area airport in mid-February found lower than one gram of cannabis vape oil in her bags.)

Mr. Genser, the lawyer for other detained Americans, noted that Mr. Biden has an option beyond raising his offer. He could seek latest ways to make Mr. Putin suffer.

“It’s essential to dramatically elevate the associated fee to Vladimir Putin of keeping them detained,” Mr. Genser said. “It’s not only about giving Putin what he wants. It’s about concurrently raising the pain for him.”

That is not any easy task, nevertheless. Biden administration officials have spent months trying to plot ways to incur enough pain on Mr. Putin to make him stop his invasion of Ukraine. Like the liberty of Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan, that goal, too, stays elusive.

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