American basketball star Brittney Griner was set to appear in a Russian court on Wednesday in a case that has made her an unlikely pawn in a diplomatic battle between Russia and the United States, as the war in Ukraine has caused the deepest rift between the two superpowers since the end of the Cold War.
Washington continues to send weapons to the Ukrainian military and has imposed sweeping sanctions on Russia, and even the decades-long partnership in space appears to be coming to an end as Moscow announced it would leave the International Space Station after its current commitment expires at the end of 2024.
Russian authorities arrested Ms. Griner, 31, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who plays for the Phoenix Mercury, about a week before President Vladimir V. Putin’s forces invaded Ukraine in February. Russia accused her of having two cartridges of hash oil in her luggage when she arrived at an airport near Moscow. Russia only made her detention public after the invasion had begun.
Ms. Griner had traveled to Russia during the WNBA outdoor season to play with a team in Yekaterinburg, about 900 miles east of Moscow. She was charged with deliberately smuggling the vape cartridges and violating Russian laws banning the import of narcotics.
She now faces a possible 10-year prison sentence.
Ms. Griner pleaded guilty this month, saying she made a mistake and inadvertently brought a banned substance into Russia for rushing to pack. In the Russian legal system, trials continue even when defendants plead guilty. Ms Griner’s lawyers have said they hope her plea will soften the court.
On Wednesday, her defense team continued to present evidence that she had no intention of breaking the law.
They have argued that she had no intention of smuggling drugs into Russia and that, like many international athletes, she had used cannabis to relieve pain from injuries. They also presented a medical certificate from Mrs. Griner’s doctor who recommends cannabis to relieve chronic pain.
With her guilty plea making the verdict a foregone conclusion, experts say her best hope is that the Biden administration finds a way to exchange her for a high-profile Russian detained by the United States. Yet the government is reluctant to create any incentive for the arrest or kidnapping of Americans abroad.