Putin aide: Biden seeks midterm boost but releasing WNBA star Brittany Griner ‘not a priority for us’

In an apparent response to President Joe Biden’s CNN interview last week, Putin advisor Yury Ushakov, who was Russia’s ambassador to the United States between 1998 and 2008, brushed off Biden’s politically-motivated demand to control the dialog between the leaders.

Asked by Jake Tapper whether he would be willing to meet with Putin at the G20 conference in November, Biden replied, “Look, I have no intention of meeting with him, but if he came to me at the G20 and said ‘I want to talk about the release of Griner,’ I’d meet with him.”

Ushakov told Rossiya-1 on Sunday, “In this tense situation, I think that he is thinking first and foremost about the upcoming midterm elections so he keeps emphasizing the need to bring back home the basketball player who was detained for drug smuggling. However, it’s not the main issue that we are concerned about.”

Apart from talking about the release of Griner, Biden said, “I don’t see any rationale to meet with [Putin] now.”

It has the style of a wartime statement, doesn’t it? As if we were formally at war with Russia. Indeed, the interview was primarily about the war in Ukraine. But Biden can’t see meeting with Putin to ease tensions between the countries with regard to the war. The basketball player is the only issue that would open the door to a conversation with his Russian counterpart. Bizarre.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin has been non-committal as to whether Putin will even attend the G20.

Brittany Griner, 31, is a two-time Olympic gold medalist. Caught with cannabis vape cartridges by a police dog at a Moscow airport, she was arrested in February and sentenced on Aug 4 to nine years in prison after pleading guilty.

A few days before this exchange, Griner’s lawyer, Alexandr D. Boykov, told The New York Times that Griner is struggling in prison.

Somebody tell Mr. Boykov that that is what prisoners do. They struggle. It’s kind of what makes prison prison.

“She has not been in as good condition as I could sometimes find her in,” said Boykov rather vaguely, making a reference to the lack of climate control at IK-1 and to her bed, which was modified to accommodate her height. He is also concerned that Griner has had trouble trying to speak to her wife, Cherelle, as well as her other friends and family.

Cherelle Griner told “CBS Mornings ” on Oct 6 that she has only had the opportunity to speak with her wife twice since February. One of those conversations, she noted,  was “the most disturbing phone call I’d ever experienced.”

Boykov spoke about his client’s mental state.

“She is not yet absolutely convinced that America will be able to take her home. She is very worried about what the price of that will be, and she is afraid that she will have to serve the whole sentence here in Russia,” he said, adding that the unintended effect of an appeal could be that she winds up in a worse prison.

The lawyer continued, “Perhaps the verdict will somehow be changed and, perhaps, the sentence will be reduced, because the decision taken by the first court is very different from judicial practice. Considering all the circumstances, taking into account my client’s personality traits and her admission of guilt, such a verdict should be absolutely impossible.”

He might have also said that perhaps this case could bring in pallets of cash to his law firm from Griner’s largesse if, perhaps, this case were to go on for a long time.

Boykov points to the precedent of Naama Issachar, an Israeli-American who was imprisoned in 2019 in the same place, IK-1. She was found guilty of a similar offense (drug smuggling) and sentenced to a similar term (10 years).

Issachar served less than a year of her term, though, as Putin pardoned her in Jan 2020 at the urging of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Former US Ambassador to the United States, Bill Richardson, visited Russia three weeks ago. After helping to negotiate Griner’s release, he told CNN that he feels confident a deal will be reached to bring both Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan home.

“I am cautiously optimistic on the Griner (and) Whelan negotiations,” said Richardson, who is also the former governor of New Mexico and who has worked privately to secure the release of American detainees abroad.

The negotiation centers around swapping Russian prisoners for the two Americans. There is no indication so far which prisoners would be returned to Russia. There have been previous negotiations aimed at releasing Merchant of Death arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for Whelan, who was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in jail after being convicted of spying. He denied the charge.


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