Russia-Ukraine War Updates: Kherson Braces for Battle

Credit…Kirill Kudryavtsev/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

U.S. officials met with the jailed American basketball star Brittney Griner on Thursday for the first time since a Russian court rejected her appeal on a drug-possession conviction, and the White House said she was doing “as well as can be expected.”

Ms. Griner has become unwillingly ensnared in a geopolitical battle between Russia and the west, and has been grappling with the decision by a Russian appeals court to uphold a nine-year sentence in a penal colony on charges of drug possession. Ms. Griner, who recently turned 32 in Russian custody, pleaded guilty to drug-smuggling charges and apologized for what she called an inadvertent offense.

“We are told she is doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances,” the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, told reporters on Air Force One as she traveled with President Biden to New Mexico.

Ned Price, the State Department spokesman, also noted that the meeting had occurred, posting on Twitter that officials from the U.S. Embassy in Russia had seen Ms. Griner and “seen firsthand her tenacity and perseverance despite her present circumstances.”

In October, one of Ms. Griner’s lawyers said that she was increasingly anxious about her chances of being freed in a prisoner swap and struggling emotionally. She is allowed outside once a day at a penal colony outside Moscow, the lawyer, Alexandr D. Boykov, said in a recent interview. He said she walks for an hour in a small courtyard, and spends the rest of her time in a small cell with two cellmates, sitting and sleeping on a specially elongated bed to accommodate her 6-foot-9 frame.

Ekaterina Kalugina, a journalist who visited Ms. Griner in her cell in the springtime, said in a phone interview in October that Ms. Griner’s two cellmates at the time were women who spoke English and were also in prison on drug-related charges. She said that Ms. Griner had been reading a translation of Dostoyevsky’s novel “Demons,” a political tragedy.

The Biden administration has been trying to negotiate a prisoner swap with Russia to bring home Ms. Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned on espionage charges, but with no reported breakthroughs — and extraordinary tension between the two countries over the war in Ukraine — a public pressure campaign from athletes, led by her wife, Cherelle Griner, has intensified.

American officials have said the United States has offered to free the imprisoned Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout as part of the deal. He is serving a 25-year prison sentence for conspiring to kill Americans.

A week before Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Ms. Griner, an All-Star center with the W.N.B.A.’s Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was detained at an airport near Moscow after customs officials found two vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. She had been en route to Yekaterinburg, a city near the Ural Mountains, where she played for a women’s basketball team.

Ms. Jean-Pierre said, in comments livestreamed by the White House, that embassy officials in Moscow were able to visit Brittney Griner on Thursday.

“As we have said before, the U.S. government made a significant offer to the Russians to resolve the current unacceptable and wrongful detentions of American citizens Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan,” she said.

She added, “I can also tell you that in the subsequent weeks, despite a lack of good faith negotiation by the Russians, the U.S. government has continued to follow up on that offer and propose alternative potential ways forward with Russians through all available channels.

“This continues to be a top priority,” Ms. Jean-Pierre said.

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