Ukraine Live Briefing: U.S. officials condemn ‘reprehensible’ sentence in Griner’s ‘sham trial’

WNBA star Brittney Griner stands behind bars in a courtroom during a hearing just outside Moscow on Aug. 2, 2022.
WNBA star Brittney Griner stands behind bars in a courtroom during a hearing just outside Moscow on Aug. 2, 2022. (Evgenia Novozhenina/AP)
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Top U.S. officials denounced the harsh prison sentence WNBA superstar Brittney Griner received in a Russian court on Thursday, accusing Moscow of using the basketball player as a political pawn and urging the Kremlin to accept a prisoner exchange that would bring her home.

“It’s unacceptable,” President Biden said in a statement, calling for Griner’s immediate release. The case centers on a small quantity of cannabis oil that Griner says she brought into Russia by accident, and her trial has become a focal point amid rising tensions between Washington and Moscow following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby called Griner’s 9½-year sentence “reprehensible” and said the proceeding was “a sham trial.”

Here’s the latest on the war and its ripple effects across the globe.

Key developments

  • American negotiators “put forth a serious proposal” for a prisoner swap, Kirby said, and Russia “should’ve accepted it weeks ago when we first made it.” He declined to discuss negotiations but said they “are ongoing at various levels.”
  • Griner’s defense team said that they will “certainly file an appeal.” The United States has urged Russia to accept a deal to free Griner and former security consultant Paul Whelan, an American former Marine serving a 16-year sentence. Moscow has said the talks involve a prisoner exchange, but Washington has declined to say whether the U.S. pair could be exchanged for Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout.
  • In response to Griner’s conviction and sentencing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “Nothing about today’s decision changes our determination that Brittney Griner is wrongfully detained,” and that bringing Griner home “is an absolute priority of mine and the Department’s.”
  • Amnesty International accused Ukrainian forces of endangering civilians by setting up military bases in schools and hospitals and launching strikes from populated areas. Amnesty said the violations “in no way justify Russia’s indiscriminate attacks,” yet the report prompted fierce criticism from Ukrainian officials. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the report shifts “the responsibility from the aggressor to the victim.” Presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak wrote on Twitter: “The only thing that poses a threat to Ukrainians is Russia’s army of executioners and rapists coming to Ukraine to commit genocide.”
  • A new U.S. intelligence finding says Russia may plant fabricated evidence at the site of the attack that killed Ukrainian prisoners who were captured in Mariupol. At a Thursday briefing, Kirby said Russia may blame advanced rocket systems that the United States provided Ukraine. The United Nations said it will investigate the blast, which took place last week at a detention facility run by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, but the terms of the fact-finding mission are still under negotiation.

Battlefield updates

  • A Russian artillery attack killed at least eight people and wounded four others in Toretsk, a city in the eastern Donetsk province, regional Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said on Thursday. The strike hit a transit stop, where a crowd was gathered, and also damaged a nearby church, injuring a priest, Kyrylenko said. The Washington Post was not able to independently verify the reports. “They knew where they were hitting, and they obviously wanted people to get hurt,” Zelensky said in his evening address.
  • Nearly 400 civilians have used government-sponsored transit to flee Donetsk, which is under a mandatory evacuation order, Kyrylenko said. Officials have been pleading with residents to “save your family from constant shelling and cold in winter." An estimated 200,000 were still in Donetsk when the order was issued over the weekend, and it was unclear how many have left on their own.
  • The safety of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant is at risk, the head of the U.N. atomic energy watchdog warned as he appealed for access to inspect Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia facility that was captured by Russian forces.
  • Russia on Thursday fired 60 rockets at a city just 10 miles from the Zaporizhzhia plant, Dnipropetrovsk Gov. Valentyn Reznichenko said. The city, Nikopol, sits just across the Dnipro River from the facility. The shelling hit residential buildings and did not appear to impact the plant’s operation — but the proximity of the strikes underscored the risk of combat around nuclear sites.
  • Ukraine’s military intelligence agency says Russian forces destroyed telecommunication networks of Ukrainian providers that refused to cooperate with them in a village they occupied in the southern Kherson region.

Global Impact

  • Zelensky wants to talk directly with Chinese leader Xi Jinping to help end the war, he told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post newspaper. Beijing has tried walking a line between ties with strategic partner Moscow and the threat of Western sanctions.
  • Russia will launch a new satellite on Iran’s behalf next week, but first will use the spacecraft to assist its own war effort in Ukraine, Western security officials told The Post. The pending launch is the latest indicator of increased military and political cooperation between Moscow and Tehran.
  • The war in Ukraine is “the most dangerous situation in Europe since World War II,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in Norway, adding that the alliance will continue to support the country with arms and other assistance.
  • Italy is investigating the case of a former Russian official who was hospitalized in Sardinia this week after suffering neurological symptoms, according to Italian media. Anatoly Chubais resigned as the Kremlin’s climate envoy soon after Russia invaded Ukraine.

From our correspondents on the ground

India turns to Russian fertilizer, showing challenge of isolating Moscow: India has dramatically increased its imports of fertilizer from Russia, showing the difficulties the United States and its allies face in isolating Moscow over the invasion of Ukraine, Niha Masih reports.

The increase in fertilizer imports from Russia makes the country India’s top supplier, according to information provided in Parliament by the minister of chemicals and fertilizers. The shipments come on top of India’s record imports of discounted Russian oil.

As the war in Ukraine drags into its sixth month, so does the challenge of seeking to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military campaign without hurting the world’s poorest people.

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