Brittany Griner Getty Russia
Getty Images

Brittney Griner, an eight-time WNBA All-Star and two-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, was found guilty of drug charges in Russia and sentenced to nine and a half years in prison in August. The United States government is trying to bring her home and made a "substantial" offer months ago, but U.S. officials say Russia has yet to give a "serious" response.

The Phoenix Mercury center has been in Russian custody since being detained on Feb. 17 at Sheremetyevo International Airport, when the Russian Federal Customs Service found vape cartridges containing the marijuana concentrate hashish oil in her luggage.

Griner's trial began on July 1, more than 130 days after her detainment, and she was sentenced a month later. Griner's appeal to shorten her sentence was denied in October. She was moved from a detention center to a penal colony in the Mordovia region mid-November.

The U.S. Government officials have yet to give details on what they've offered Russia, but Russian officials and multiple reports have confirmed that the U.S. is seeking to engage in a prisoner trade involving Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Russia launched a full-scale military attack against Ukraine on Feb. 24, prompting the U.S. and other countries to issue severe sanctions against Russia. The detainment of Griner is happening during a time of high tension, making negotiations more difficult. The State Department urged American citizens to immediately leave Russia to avoid the "potential for harassment" in an updated advisory on March 5. 

Assistance won't be easy to provide in Griner's case, according to California congressman John Garamendi. Garamendi, who also serves on the U.S. House Committee on Armed Services, said the "nonexistent" diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and Russia will make securing her release "very difficult." 

"Our diplomatic relationships with Russia are nonexistent at the moment," Garamendi told CNN in March. "Perhaps during the various negotiations that may take place, she might be able to be one of the solutions. I don't know."

Garamendi added Griner's sexual orientation -- she is a lesbian -- could make the process even more challenging because "Russia has some very, very strict LGBT rules and laws."

Here is a full explainer on the situation:

Why was Griner in Russia? 

Griner was one of about 70 WNBA players -- nearly half the league's 144 roster spots -- competing internationally during the 2022 offseason. She was also among the dozen-plus playing in Russia or the Ukraine -- all of whom, aside from Griner, have left. UMMC Ekaterinburg alone has five WNBA All-Stars in Griner, reigning WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones, Breanna Stewart, Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot on its current roster. WNBA players don't plan to return to Russia until Griner is released.

While Griner and Co. have varying reasons for playing internationally, many do so for financial purposes. The WNBA's minimum and maximum salaries are $60,471 and $228,094, respectively. Those numbers are far below what the NBA offers, as that league -- which plays 82 games compared to the WNBA's 36 -- has a minimum salary of $925,000 and maximum salaries starting at more than $28 million annually. 

According to Cherelle Griner, Brittney Griner plays overseas because of the WNBA's pay. Griner reportedly earns $1 million per season to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg.

"BG would wholeheartedly love to not go overseas," Cherelle Griner told ABC News on May 25. "She has only had one Thanksgiving in the States in nine years since she's been pro, and she misses all that stuff. Just because, you know, she can't make enough money in the WNBA, like, to sustain her life."

The WNBA's relatively low salaries forced former league MVP -- and Griner's Mercury teammate -- Diana Taurasi to accept a contract worth a reported $1.5 million from UMMC Ekaterinburg in 2015 even though it would keep her from that year's WNBA season. 

"The year-round nature of women's basketball takes its toll and the financial opportunity with my team in Russia would have been irresponsible to turn down," Taurasi wrote in an open letter to fans. "They offered to pay me to rest and I've decided to take them up on it. I want to be able to take care of myself and my family when I am done playing."

In 2020, the WNBA and WNBPA agreed to a new eight-year CBA that would raise the average salary to nearly $130,000, its first time above six figures. The WNBA's maximum salary was $117,500 the year prior.

How have American politicians reacted? 

The immediate reaction to Griner's situation was somewhat muted among American politicians over concerns of the former WNBA champion's privacy.  Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House press secretary Jen Psaki both declined to directly comment on Griner's situation immediately after her detention went public, citing privacy concerns. Psaki noted federal privacy law requires the U.S. government to get written consent from a person in detention to discuss their situation. 

The U.S. government declared Griner "wrongfully detained" on May 3 and reportedly enlisted the help of former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson, who has several years of experience as an international hostage negotiator. 

On July 27, CNN reported the United States had offered to exchange Bout as part of a potential deal with Russia to release Griner and Whelan. That same day, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said publicly the U.S. government put a "substantial proposal on the table" but did not confirm the reports regarding Bout. 

According to CNN, the Russian government replied to the U.S.'s initial offer by requesting that convicted murderer Vadim Krasikov also be added to the proposed swap. Russian officials reportedly communicated the request earlier in July, but they did so through an informal backchannel. Due to the form of communication, the U.S. initially questioned the legitimacy of it.

Also, the request to include Krasikov in the trade isn't a simple one: He was convicted of murder in Germany last year and still remains in German custody. Per CNN, a German government source confirmed that U.S. officials did make quiet inquiries to Germany. 

During a press conference on Nov 9, U.S. President Joe Biden said that now that the midterm elections are over, he hopes Russian President Vladimir Putin will be more open to negotiating Griner's release. 

"My hope is that now that the election is over, that Mr. Putin will be able to discuss with us and be willing to talk more seriously about a prisoner exchange," Biden said.

An update from Russia mid-November suggested that chances of a successful prisoner swap negotiation with the United States had "strengthened." However, the U.S. Department of State said Nov. 18 that Kremlin officials have been failing to "seriously negotiate."

Elizabeth Rood, the U.S. chargée d'affaires in Moscow, told Russia's state-owned RIA news agency in late November that the two countries are continuing talks through a designated channel, but so far no real progress has been made.

How has Russia reacted? 

Russia also started the negotiations in a quiet manner and "silent diplomacy" has been the motto.

"The discussions on the very sensitive topic of an exchange are proceeding via the channels chosen by our presidents," said Alexander Darchiev, head of the North America department at the Russian Foreign Ministry, according to the Russian state-owned news agency TASS. "Silent diplomacy continues and should bear fruit if Washington, of course, is careful not to fall into propaganda."

For the first time since Griner's detainment, Russian officials confirmed on Aug. 11 that they were undergoing negotiations with the U.S. government regarding a potential prisoner swap that could bring Griner home. Two days later, The Moscow Times reported Russia had confirmed it sought to make Bout a part of the deal.

Bout, also known as the "Merchant of Death," was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then extradited to the United States, where he is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence.

On Oct. 16, Kremlin aide Yury Ushakov told Rossiya-1 -- a state-owned Russian television channel -- that reaching a deal was not a priority at the moment.

"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," he said.

However, the following month there was a more positive update from Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. On Nov. 18, Ryabkov said he felt the US and Russia will eventually reach an agreement on a prisoner exchange that involves Bout. 

"I want to hope that the prospect not only remains but is being strengthened and that the moment will come when we will get a concrete agreement," Ryabkov told reporters.

"The Americans are showing some external activity, we are working professionally through a special channel designed for this. Viktor Bout is among those who are being discussed, and we certainly count on a positive result."

Basketball world reacts

Griner has more than the U.S. government on her side. Multiple organizations, including the Mercury and the WNBPA, have put out statements issuing their support. In June, the WNBA named her an honorary All-Star. NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced he and WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert are working "side-by-side" in securing Griner's release

According a report from the AP, Griner has received hundreds of emails and letters from players around the league. Griner's email address has not been released to the public, but the WNBA Players' Union has shared it with members through text messages. She also received multiple messages on social media on her birthday.

In an Oct. 17 interview with Yahoo Finance, Engelbert described Griner's detention as "an unimaginable situation" and "geopolitically complex."

"We've been talking to the State Department, the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs and everybody in the administration... they are trying to find every different way to get her home safely first, and as soon as possible second," Engelbert said. 

Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, has also been very public about her feelings regarding her wife's situation.

"The fact that everything's so unprecedented and everything's, like, changeable I think is a really good word. Like, I feel like every day I'm hearing something new, and so it's just kind of like, it's terrifying," Cherelle Griner told CBS Mornings.