Brittney Griner, an Olympic champion basketball player, was detained last week by the Russian Federal Customs Service after it said it discovered vape cartridges of hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow, the New York Times reports. Now, Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner — a US citizen— is entangled in a dangerous confrontation between Russia and the West over the invasion of Ukraine.
The Russian Federal Customs Service did not release the player’s name at first, but did release a video of a traveler going through airport security who appeared to be Griner. Russian news agency Tass quoted law enforcement and 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 W.N.B.A. and N.B.A.,” she said.
Griner’s arrest couldn’t come at a worse time. Tensions between US and Russia are at an all-time high since the Cuban missile crisis due to the invasion of Ukraine. The Biden administration is leading dozens of nations in imposing crushing sanctions on Russia’s economy and its oligarchs (or political elites). President Vladimir Putin of Russia said on Saturday that the sanctions were “akin to a declaration of war” against his country.
Also on Saturday, the State Department released an updated advisory urging US citizens to leave the country immediately due to what’s happening in Ukraine, saying that there’s a “potential for harassment against US citizens by Russian government security officials” and the limited ability of the US Embassy in Moscow to assist American 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 US.ambassador to Moscow. “Get out. Shut down your businesses now.”
The Russian Federal Customs Service released a video that 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 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.
In recent years, US officials have accused Russia of detaining and sentencing American citizens on exaggerated charges — hence the “drug smuggling” charges Griner is now faced with, despite only carrying several THC vape carts. 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.
“If we want her out of jail, Russia is going to have some terms,' said Evelyn Farkas, the former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia and Ukraine, to Yahoo 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's wife, Cherelle, took to social media Saturday to thank people for their prayers during what she described as one of the “weakest” moments of her life. “Thank you to everyone who has reached out to me regarding my wife's safe return from Russia,” she captioned a photo of her and Brittney.
“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. Thank you!”
Many are worried for Griner's safety while in custody in Russia — where Vladimir Putin has enacted strict anti-gay laws.
Prominent politicians from Griner’s home state of Texas are also calling for her release.
On Saturday, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee said she has spoken with the State Department to get the WNBA star released.
“We know that there were some issues dealing with vape cartridges and other items but let me be very clear,” Lee, who represents Griner's hometown of Houston, said on Saturday. “Brittney Griner is a United States citizen, she was a guest in Russia…and I will be demanding her release.”
Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro said he would monitor the situation and said Griner must be safely returned.
"I'm closely monitoring reports of Texan Brittney Griner's detention in Russia. This follows a pattern of Russia wrongly detaining & imprisoning US citizens, including Trevor Reed. US citizens are not political pawns. Brittney, Trevor, and other Americans must be safely returned," he tweeted on Saturday.
The situation with Brittney is evolving, and we will continue to cover the updates as they unfold. In the meantime, FREE BRITTNEY GRINER!