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The Week In Russia: Prisoners Of War  

U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner sits inside a defendants' cage as she is given a nine-year prison sentence in Moscow on August 4.

As Moscow’s use of unprovoked force grinds on 24 weeks after the invasion turned a simmering conflict in the region known as the Donbas into a full-scale war that has killed tens of thousands of people, another of Putin’s go-to foreign and domestic policy tools came into the spotlight this month: the trial.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Trial And Error

Russia’s war against Ukraine has trained a horrific spotlight on President Vladimir Putin’s use of military force as an instrument of foreign policy and domestic pressure.

It’s a tool the Kremlin has turned to repeatedly -- in Syria and in Georgia, for example. And it’s one that helped Putin, then a little-known figure who had held no elected office, to sharpen his profile and strengthen his grip on power by unleashing a second war in Chechnya shortly after he first became prime minister 23 years ago this week.

The results have been mixed, and in Ukraine the outcome is far from clear, though some analysts say that Putin – or Russia under Putin, more precisely -- has already lost.

As Moscow’s use of unprovoked force grinds on 24 weeks after the February 24 invasion turned a simmering conflict in the region known as the Donbas into a full-scale war that has killed tens of thousands of people, another of Putin’s go-to foreign and domestic policy tools came into the spotlight this month: the trial.

On August 4, U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner, who has played in Russia since 2014, was convicted on a drug-smuggling charge over vape cartridges containing cannabis oil that prosecutors said were found in her luggage upon arrival at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport on February 17 – one week before the invasion. She was sentenced to nine years in prison.

Griner’s trial was unlike the high-profile, politically charged or geopolitically charged trials of some Russians and foreigners under Putin in that she acknowledged she had done what she was accused of, calling it “an honest mistake.”

In many cases, particularly those in which perceived political opponents of Putin are in the dock, the charges themselves are decried by the defendants and their supporters as absurd, baseless, or the result of a set-up -- and sometimes all three.

But it was like those others -- the trials of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, anti-corruption crusader and Putin opponent Aleksei Navalny, Gulag historian Yury Dmitriyev, and many more -- in that the focus of attention was on the sentence all along because a guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion.

But it can take a long time for Russian courts to turn a foregone conclusion into a fait accompli. In Khodorkovsky’s first trial, the judges spent more than two weeks -- breaks included -- reading out the verdict before pronouncing the sentence: nine years in prison.

In Real Time

Ample evidence suggests that Putin’s government tailors the sentences in high-profile trials to fit what it sees as its domestic or foreign-policy needs.

After his first trial, in 2013, Navalny was sentenced to five years in prison. But in an unprecedented development that is widely believed to have reflected the Kremlin’s fear of making him a martyr and stoking protests, he was freed pending an appeal -- and the sentence was later suspended, so he avoided prison. And in a second trial that ended in 2014, he also received a suspended sentence.

By February 2021, when he faced new accusations after being arrested upon returning to Russia following treatment in Germany for a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on Putin, the atmosphere was different: The authorities were conducting an increasingly aggressive clampdown, which some observers now believe was a planned prelude to the invasion of Ukraine a year later.

And this time, the state had no problem putting him in prison: The court converted Navalny’s suspended sentence into what Russians call “real” time. Then, this past March, he was sentenced to nine years -- “real” time again -- on a new charge.

While the sentencing comes at the very end of a trial, a hint is offered shortly before the verdict, when the prosecutor makes a sentencing recommendation -- part of the political performance the Russian state puts on in high-profile trials. Frequently, the sentence ends up being slightly shorter than the recommendation -- the point, seemingly, being to suggest that what’s being considered is the law and not some edict from above.

'An Honest Mistake'

Another objective may be to troll the defendant: In Griner’s case, the maximum sentence was 10 years, the prosecutor called for a 9 1/2-year sentence, and she was given nine years -- an outcome that President Joe Biden said was “unacceptable.”

In her final statement in court ahead of the verdict and sentencing, the 31-year-old American apologized to her family, teammates, and the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, where she plays in the off-season of the U.S. Women's National Basketball Association, “for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them.”

“I hope in your ruling it does not end my life,” she said.

For Putin’s government, the geopolitical purpose of the sentence handed down to Griner seems abundantly clear: To increase her value as a bargaining chip in a potential swap for Russian prisoners in the United States – primarily Viktor Bout, the arms dealer and model for the Hollywood movie Lord Of War who is serving a 25-year sentence at a federal prison in the state of Illinois.

There are other Russians whom the Kremlin may want to bring back from U.S. custody, and there are other U.S. citizens behind bars in Russia who could potentially be released in exchanges.

The Americans include Paul Whelan, a corporate security executive who was arrested in Moscow in 2018 on espionage charges he denies and sentenced to 16 years in prison; Marc Fogel, a beloved teacher at a Moscow school chartered by the U.S., British, and Canadian embassies who was arrested at Sheremetyevo airport in 2021 while carrying about half an ounce of medical marijuana and is serving a 14-year sentence; and David Barnes, who was arrested in Moscow in January amid a custody battle with his ex-wife, who U.S. authorities say fled to Russia with their children in 2019.

Editor's Note: Through mid-October, The Week In Russia will appear every two weeks. The next edition will appear on August 26.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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