Russia could use basketball superstar to extract concessions from United States

WNBA player Brittney Griner has been detained in Russia since sometime in February.

WNBA star Brittney Griner could find herself used as a pawn in an international struggle between Russia and the United States, according to a former Pentagon official who spoke to Yahoo Sports. 

Evelyn Farkas, who was the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia and Ukraine from 2012 to 2015, called Griner, a women’s basketball superstar, a “high-profile hostage” and a prime bargaining chip.

Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury during pregame warmups at Footprint Center on October 10, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Mike Mattina/Getty Images)

Farkas said she worries Russia will try to use Griner as leverage, just as they have with other Americans, and try to get some sort of concession from the United States.

“If we want her out of jail, Russia is going to have some terms,” Farkas told Yahoos Sports. “It could be a prisoner swap. They also could use it as an implicit threat or blackmail to get us to do something or not do something. Either way, they find it useful.”

Griner, one of the WNBA’s most high-profile players and the No. 1 draft pick by the Phoenix Mercury in 2013, has been in Russian custody since she was detained by authorities who claim they confiscated hash oil in her luggage at Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow. How long she’s been detained isn’t known. The Associated Press said she’s been held since last month

Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner posted on Instagram Saturday, thanking supporters and asking for privacy while the situation unfolds.

“Your prayers and support are greatly appreciated. I love my wife wholeheartedly, so this message comes during one of the weakest moments of my life. I understand that many of you have grown to love BG over the years and have concerns and want details. Please honor our privacy as we continue to work on getting my wife home safely,” she said in part.

The Russian customs service, in a statement, said it has opened a criminal investigation for large-scale transportation of drugs which could result in a 10-year prison sentence, The New York Times reported.  

Griner’s agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas said in a statement Saturday: “We are aware of the situation with Brittney Griner in Russia and are in close contact with her, her legal representation in Russia, her family, her teams, and the WNBA and NBA.”

Russian officials have not specified the date of Griner’s arrest. An online search of the UMMC Ekaterinburg box scores shows her name last appeared on Jan. 29. The team had games on Feb. 1 and 23, according to their schedule, but Griner’s name didn’t appear.

A check of her social media pages shows she has not posted on Facebook since Feb. 9 or Instagram since Feb. 5.

Russia has, in the past, seized American citizens and held them for long periods for what the U.S. government insists are trumped-up charges.

Trevor Reed, a former Marine, has been detained in Russia since 2019. Authorities there accused and convicted him of assaulting a police officer.

He’s serving nine years in prison

Paul Wheelan, another American, has been in Russian custody since 2018. The former security analyst has been convicted of espionage and is serving a 16-year sentence.  

And Marc Fogel, a teacher, has been detained since August 2021, accused of trying to smuggle marijuana into the country.

American officials have warned that Russia could start detaining Americans who are still in the country. The State Department has urged Americans in Russia to leave.

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