Brittney Griner, star WNBA center, is detained in Russia
By Michael Crowley and Jonathan Abrams
Russia said Saturday that it had detained an American basketball player — later identified as Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner — on drug charges, entangling a U.S. citizen’s fate in the dangerous confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine.
The Russian Federal Customs Service said its officials had detained the player after finding vape cartridges that contained hashish oil in her luggage at the Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow, and it released a video of a traveler going through airport security who appeared to be Griner.
The Customs Service did not release the player’s name, but the Russian news agency Tass, citing a law enforcement source, identified the player as Griner, a seven-time WNBA All-Star center for the Mercury.
In a statement, Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, did not dispute reports of her client’s detention. “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,” she said.
Griner’s detention comes at the most dangerous moment in U.S.-Russia relations since the Cuban missile crisis, as the Biden administration leads dozens of nations in imposing crushing sanctions on Russia’s economy and its political elites. President Vladimir Putin of Russia said Saturday that the sanctions were “akin to a declaration of war” against his country.
Also Saturday, the State Department, which for weeks had warned Americans against traveling to Russia, released an updated advisory urging U.S. citizens to leave the country immediately, citing the invasion in Ukraine, the “potential for harassment against U.S. citizens by Russian government security officials” and the limited ability of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to assist U.S. citizens in the country.
“I obviously don’t know the circumstances of her detention, but Griner’s arrest should serve as a wake-up call to all Americans in Russia,” said Michael A. McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow. “Get out. Shut down your businesses now.”
The video released by Russia’s Customs Service showed a traveler passing through security screening, followed by footage of someone examining a package that appeared to be from the traveler’s bag. The screening at the airport occurred in February, according to the Customs Service, raising the possibility that Griner, 31, has been in custody for at least several days.
The Customs Service said that a criminal case had been opened into the large-scale transportation of drugs, which can carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison in Russia. Hashish oil, or hash oil, is a marijuana concentrate that has a high concentration of the plant’s main psychoactive ingredient, THC. It can be consumed in many ways, but it is commonly sold in cartridges that are used in vape pens.
The incident comes amid intense repression within Russia, as Putin cracks down on internal dissent to a degree analysts say they have not seen since the days of the Soviet Communist Party.
In recent years, U.S. officials have accused Russia of detaining and sentencing U.S. citizens on trumped-up charges. The detaining of a high-profile American could even be an effort by Russia to gain leverage in the political and economic standoff with Washington over the Ukraine invasion.
A State Department spokesperson said only that the United States was aware of reports that Griner had been arrested and that the United States provides consular services to Americans arrested overseas.
The State Department also confirmed Saturday that the United States, which has closed its airspace to Russian aviation, had allowed a Russian government charter plane to land in the Washington area to retrieve employees of Russia’s mission at the United Nations who were expelled from the United States this past week on suspicions of espionage.
Colas, Griner’s agent, said in her statement, “As this is an ongoing legal matter, we are not able to comment further on the specifics of her case but can confirm that as we work to get her home, her mental and physical health remain our primary concern.”
The WNBA said in a statement that Griner “has the WNBA’s full support and our main priority is her swift and safe return to the United States.”
Although it is unclear whether Russia might have targeted Griner for being an American or saw her detention as a useful bargaining tool with Washington, one Democratic member of Congress depicted her case that way Saturday.
“This follows a pattern of Russia wrongly detaining & imprisoning US citizens, including Trevor Reed,” the lawmaker, Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas, wrote on Twitter. “US citizens are not political pawns. Brittney, Trevor, and other Americans must be safely returned.”
In 2020, a court in Moscow sentenced Reed, a former U.S. Marine, to nine years in prison on charges of assaulting and endangering the lives of two police officers, accusations that his family and supporters say are fraudulent and politically motivated.
Earlier the same year, another former Marine, Paul Whelan, was sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges during a trial that was closed to the public.
The Mercury, the WNBA players union and USA Basketball, which oversees the Olympic teams, also released statements expressing support for Griner.
Many WNBA players compete in Russia, where salaries are more lucrative, during the American league’s offseason. Griner has played for the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg for several years.
Griner is set to earn about $228,000 with the Mercury in the 2022 season, according to the website Her Hoop Stats, just shy of the league’s maximum salary. Some players have made substantially more money with Russian teams, like Griner’s Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi, who reports said earned around $1.5 million with UMMC Ekaterinburg in 2015.
Some American players began making plans to leave Russia following the country’s invasion of Ukraine, and a WNBA spokesperson said Saturday that all WNBA players besides Griner were out of Russia and Ukraine.
Griner, a native of Houston, became a transformative talent in college basketball throughout her celebrated tenure at Baylor, where she was a three-time All-American.
Before Griner, only a handful of women had ever dunked in a college game. Griner’s dunks became anticipated during her time at Baylor, where she guided the Lady Bears to a national championship in 2012. She is the only player in NCAA history, male or female, to amass at least 2,000 points and 500 blocked shots.
The Mercury selected Griner with the top pick in the 2013 draft and paired her with Taurasi, another of the game’s top players, and the team captured the WNBA title in 2014.
Griner later won gold medals with the U.S. women’s national basketball team in 2016 and 2021. She is one of a handful of players to have won a college championship, WNBA and Euroleague titles and an Olympic gold medal.