Nothing about Thursday’s proceedings in a Russian courthouse, where the W.N.B.A. star Brittney Griner was being tried on drug smuggling charges, surprised experts familiar with Russia’s legal process. Griner was convicted and sentenced to a penal colony for nine years — just one year shy of the maximum sentence.
Her conviction was thought to be a formality and a prerequisite for a prisoner swap that could lead to her return to the United States.
“I think the negotiations will accelerate now that there’s finality to the alleged court process,” said Jonathan Franks, who has worked with the family of Trevor R. Reed, a former U.S. Marine who was returned to the United States in a prisoner swap with Russia in April.
Reed was also sentenced to nine years of imprisonment after he was convicted of assault, a charge his family considered to be spurious and politically motivated.
“One thing Americans need to realize is, we’re dealing with thugs,” Franks said. “The people who take our folks hostage or wrongfully detain them, it’s just state-sponsored kidnapping. They’re thugs. Sometimes, in order to get thugs’ attention, they only understand strength.”
Last week, the U.S. State Department said it had made a “substantial offer” to the Russian government for Griner and Paul N. Whelan, an American who has been detained in Russia since 2018. Whelan was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison.
But now that Griner’s trial is over, experts said even more patience would be required from those who support her. After U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken publicly said that the United States had offered Russia a deal, Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, told reporters that prisoner swaps were negotiated quietly.
William Pomeranz, the acting director of the Kennan Institute and an expert on Russian law, said: “There’s no incentive for Russia to do any favors for the United States.”
“I am not optimistic that the diplomatic deal will take place any time soon,” he said, pointing to Peskov’s statement and the poor relations between the two countries because of the war in Ukraine.
Griner has been detained in Russia since Feb. 17 when Russian customs officials at an airport near Moscow said they had found hashish oil, a cannabis derivative, in a vape pen in her luggage.
The U.S. State Department announced in May that it considered Griner to be “wrongfully detained,” which meant her case would be handled by the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. The State Department said it would work to secure her release, no matter how her trial ended.