Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges in a Russian courtroom on Thursday, as the wrangling over the American basketball star’s fate shifted increasingly to the diplomatic arena — a daunting prospect for Ms. Griner’s supporters amid America’s rift with Moscow over the war in Ukraine.
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.
“I’d like to plead guilty, your honor. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,” Ms. Griner said in English, which was then translated into Russian, according to a Reuters reporter in the courtroom.
Ms. Griner told the court she would say more on the next day of her trial, scheduled for July 14. She is charged with illegal drug possession and with smuggling a “significant amount.”
By pleading guilty, Ms. 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.”
American officials insist 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.
“Ms. Griner was able to read that letter,” Ms. Rood told reporters outside the courtroom. “I would like again to emphasize the commitment of the U.S. government at the very highest level to bring home safely Ms. Griner and all U.S. citizens wrongfully detained.”
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. That was underscored by Mr. Ryabkov on Thursday as he made some of the most extensive comments by any Russian official about Ms. Griner’s case in the nearly five months she has spent in custody.
“Hype and publicity, for all the love for this genre among modern politicians, only gets in the way in this particular instance,” Mr. Ryabkov said. “This does not just distract from the case, but creates interference in the truest sense of the word. That’s why silence is needed here.”
He hinted, however, that Moscow was interested in negotiating over Ms. Griner’s fate, saying 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.”
Mr. Ryabkov did not specify what those signals were, though Russian state media has suggested that the Kremlin might be interested in exchanging the American athlete for Mr. Bout, 55, a former Soviet military officer who made a fortune in global arms trafficking before he was caught in a federal sting operation.
Without a deal, Ms. Griner could face years in prison.
Arseny Levinson, a Russian lawyer who has been involved in cases similar to Ms. Griner’s, said her case was “absurd” because she clearly had not had criminal intent. But while her prosecution has political overtones, in many ways it is typical for Russia, where the law enforcement system often “imitates the fight against drug smuggling,” Mr. Levinson said.
In most cases, Mr. Levinson said, Russian courts would give a suspended sentence to people charged with Ms. Griner’s crime. But her prospects may be grimmer, he said, because suspended sentences against noncitizens are harder to enforce.
“As a rule, foreigners get much harsher sentences than Russians,” said Mr. Levinson, who works for a nonprofit group that helps suspects in drug-related crimes.
A Russian official did note earlier this week that there was one avenue Ms. Griner might pursue. “No one is stopping Brittney Griner from making use of the appeal procedure and also from requesting clemency,” a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry said.
Hours after her guilty plea Thursday, it appeared her advisers might be laying the groundwork for just that.
“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.
Even if the United States and Russia agreed to an exchange to bring Ms. Griner home, such a deal could take years to materialize. Trevor R. Reed, an ailing former U.S. Marine held in Russia on what his family considered to be bogus assault charges, was freed in April in a prisoner swap more than two years after his arrest.
Former Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a former ambassador to the United Nations who has spent years working to secure hostage releases through his nonprofit organization, was involved in months of quiet but intense diplomacy to free Mr. Reed. Mr. Richardson is now working on Ms. Griner’s case, as well as that of a former Marine, Paul Whelan, who has been detained in Russia since 2018.
Mickey Bergman, executive director of the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, said in an email that Ms. Griner’s guilty plea was understandable. “We believe that any prisoner in a situation like this needs to do what they believe can help them survive the ordeal,” Mr. Bergman said in an email. “She is fighting for her life.”
What to Know About Brittney Griner’s Detention in Russia
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.
Ms. Rood, the American diplomat who attended Thursday’s court proceeding, said Ms. Griner had told her that “she’s eating well, she’s able to read books.”
“Under the circumstances, she’s doing well,” Ms. Rood said.
Ms. Griner’s lawyer, Aleksandr Boikov, said in a comment via a messaging app that his client told the court Thursday that she “was carrying substances prohibited in Russia unintentionally.”
“She was packing in a hurry,” he said in a phone interview. “Cartridges appeared in her luggage because of carelessness.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with Ms. Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, according to a statement released by the White House. During the call, the statement said, the president read a draft of a letter that he planned to send to Brittney Griner. He also said that his administration was pursuing “every avenue to bring Brittney home.”
Cherelle Griner had publicly expressed frustration with Mr. Biden and his administration’s efforts to secure her wife’s release.
In a statement Wednesday, Cherelle Griner said she was grateful to Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris “for the time they spent with me and for the commitment they expressed to getting B.G. home.”
The United States government has classified Brittney Griner as “wrongfully detained” and said it would work to secure her release regardless of the outcome of the trial.
Brittney Griner’s W.N.B.A. team, the Phoenix Mercury, held a rally to support her on Wednesday.
“What and how I feel today is a deeper emotion than hurt,” Cherelle Griner said at the rally. “I’m frustrated. I’m frustrated that 140 days have passed since my wife has been able to speak to me, to our family, to our friends. I’m frustrated that my wife is not going to get justice. I know you all are frustrated too, that’s why you’re here.”
Cherelle Griner asked for the people attending the rally, a few hundred fans according to The Associated Press, to help make sure the Biden administration knows “they have our support to do whatever is necessary” to bring her wife home.
Brittney Griner’s communication with her family and friends in the United States has been limited to letters. Recently, one of her Mercury teammates, forward Brianna Turner, wrote to her, recalling memories of their time together. “One of my favorite moments wasn’t even on the court,” Ms. Turner said. “We went to Indiana and rented Lime scooters and we just rode all around downtown.”
Ms. Turner also told her teammate that she would be an honorary All-Star this season. Because Ms. Griner has been detained since February, she has not played in the W.N.B.A. this season.
“And B.G. has a great sense of humor — she told me that she probably would have the worst stat line, and she wouldn’t be in the game,” Ms. Turner said, laughing.
Then she turned serious again: “We need to get her back home. She deserves to be back home. She needs to be back with her family and with her friends.”