By pleading guilty to drug charges in a Russian courtroom this week, the American basketball star Brittney 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.”
Ms. Griner still faces the conviction and sentencing phases of her trial, and her next date in court is scheduled for Thursday, July 14.
Ms. Griner is charged with illegal drug possession and with smuggling a “significant amount.” 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.
Hours after her guilty plea Thursday, it appeared that her advisers might be laying the groundwork for diplomatic efforts between U.S. and Russian officials to take the lead.
“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.
American officials insist that 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.
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.
Mr. Ryabkov has hinted that Moscow was interested in negotiating over Ms. Griner’s fate, saying that 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.”
Russia’s Interfax news agency reported that on Friday, Mr. Ryabkov emphasized that any such negotiations should be conducted privately. “As for any exchange formulas, our stance is unwavering: This should be done in private, using the available channels,” he told reporters. “I am not sure that any additional activity, especially any activity conducted in public, can help reach a correct, balanced compromise.”
Without a deal, Ms. Griner could face years in prison.