Russia-Ukraine War: Live Updates – The New York Times

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With Russia pressing ahead with its bombardment of Ukraine and NATO leaders returned home from their annual summit having reaffirmed their solidarity with the besieged country, the W.N.B.A. star Brittney Griner arrived at a Russian court on Friday for the start of a trial on drug charges in a case that has raised fears that the Kremlin will use her as leverage in the war.

Ms. Griner’s detainment, which began a week before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine over four months ago, comes at a delicate geopolitical moment during the war and amid Russia’s strained diplomatic relationships with the United States and some European countries. Legal experts said her trial was all but certain to end in a conviction despite the clamor in the United States for her release.

The trial also comes as missile strikes on a residential tower and a recreational center in a Ukrainian coastal town southwest of the Black Sea port city of Odesa early Friday killed at least 17 and injured dozens of others, according to Ukrainian officials.

Ms. Griner is one of the world’s most decorated basketball players — a seven-time W.N.B.A. All-Star, two-time Olympic gold medalist and the first openly gay athlete signed to an endorsement contract by Nike. She traveled to Russia after a two-week break to play for UMMC Yekaterinburg, a powerhouse professional basketball team. Many W.N.B.A. players supplement their incomes in the league’s off-season by playing internationally, where the top-tier athletes can draw salaries of around $1 million.

Russian customs officials said they had found vape cartridges containing traces of hashish oil in Ms. Griner’s luggage when she passed through a security checkpoint in an airport near Moscow on Feb. 17. The drug charges that she faces carry a sentence of up to 10 years at a penal colony.

The U.S. State Department declared in May that Ms. Griner had been “wrongfully detained.” That shifted responsibility for the case to the government bureau that leads and coordinates the United States’ diplomatic and strategic efforts on overseas hostage cases.

“Brittney has been classified as wrongfully detained since April 29, which means that the U.S. government has determined she is being used as a political pawn and as a result, is engaging in negotiations for her release, regardless of the legal process,” Ms. Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, said in an email on Wednesday. “As such, our expectation — Brittney’s family included — remains that President Biden get a deal done to bring her home.”

Updates on Ms. Griner have been scarce and mostly parceled out by the Russian state news media. She has communicated with W.N.B.A. colleagues through letters and emails, according to The Associated Press. But her wife, Cherelle Griner, told The A.P. that a recent long-planned phone call between the two did not occur because of a logistical error at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

The Kremlin appears interested in linking her fate to that of Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year federal prison sentence for conspiring to sell weapons to people who said they planned to kill Americans. Russian officials have pressed Mr. Bout’s case for years, and in recent weeks Russian news media outlets have directly linked his case to Ms. Griner’s.

Some, including the state-owned Tass news service, have even claimed that talks with Washington for a possible exchange are already underway, something that U.S. officials will not confirm. But the Biden administration, despite being under pressure to free Ms. Griner, is reluctant to create an incentive for the arrest or abduction of Americans abroad.

Aleksandr Boikov, Ms. Griner’s lawyer, said on Monday that he expected the trial to last up to two months.

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