Facing nine years as a political prisoner, WNBA star Brittney Griner has been drafted into a very dangerous tug of war.
In what might have been a historic case of the world’s worst timing, WNBA basketball star and olympic athlete Brittney Griner was arrested in Russia shortly before Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine.
Due to the timing, what would probably have been a minor offense- Griner was caught, according to Russian authorities, at the Moscow airport with a very small amount of marijuana in a vape cartridge- became instead an international incident, a political flashpoint in a simmering conflict.
“I want to apologize to my teammates, my club and the city for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought,” Brittney Griner told the judge prior to her sentencing last week. “I also want to apologize to my parents, my siblings, Phoenix Mercury, the amazing women of the WNBA and my amazing spouse back home.”
“I never meant to hurt anybody,” Griner assured the Russian court. “I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population. I never meant to break any laws here. I made an honest mistake and I hope that, in your ruling, that it doesn’t end my life here.”
“I know that everybody keeps talking about political pawns and politics, but I hope that is far from this courtroom,” Griner implored. “I want to say again that I had no intent of breaking Russian laws. I had no intent. I did not conspire or plan to commit this crime.”
Her plea for leniency did little good; “Brittney Griner found guilty in Russian court, sentenced to nine years in prison,” as Yahoo Sports announced on August 4, 2022.
“Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney,” said U.S. President Joe Biden in response to the sentencing verdict. “It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, and teammates.”
In a statement, President Biden vowed, “to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring her home.”
“This sentence, this trial just reaffirms what we have been saying all along: Brittney has been wrongfully detained and she needs to be immediately released by Russian authorities so she can be home with her wife, her teammates, and her friends and family and the President is going to stay 100% committed to achieving that outcome,” promised National Security Council Director for Strategic Communications John Kirby during a recent appearance on CNBC.
Biden officials have been working furiously behind-the-scenes for some time, using diplomatic back-channels and official overtures to secure the release of Griner, along with another American held on espionage charges, Paul Whelan. Russia is said to be responsive to the idea of a prisoner swap, but Russian officials have been cagey about the details.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently said the Russian government is, “ready to discuss the topic,” but added, “there is a specified channel that has been agreed upon,” between the two presidents and no negotiations would take place outside it.
“We put forward, as you know, a substantial proposal that Russia should engage with us on,” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told an audience at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit this week. “And what Foreign Minister Lavrov said this morning and said publicly is that they are prepared to engage through channels we’ve established to do just that. And we’ll be pursuing that.”
The conflict between Russia and Ukraine, simmering since long before 2014, predictably boiled over at a moment when world leaders opposed to Putin found their countries and economies weakened by 2.5+ years and counting of pandemic living. On February 24, 2022, Russian military forces officially marched on Ukraine.
The uncomfortably adjacent conflict between Putin and western world leaders remains at a simmer. The powerful leaders of the European Union and the United States would very much like Vladimir Putin to cease his campaign of military conquest in Ukraine, which he seems very unlikely to do at this point.
U.S. and E.U. leaders would also like Putin to cease his campaign of military and economic brinksmanship against nations opposed to Russia’s annexation, by force, of the Ukraine.
Recently, Putin has seemed as likely to do the former as the latter. E.U. leadership, elected officials on two continents, and economists all around the world have watched in great trepidation as powerful nations like Germany have been reduced to medieval methods of winter preparedness.
Due to Putin’s incredibly predictable move of cutting off supplies of Russian fossil fuels to Germany via the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, Germans are being advised to stockpile firewood and make use of central indoor spaces to create “warm rooms” in order to survive the coming cold months.
Currently, German customers are able to count on only 20% of the energy they had access to last year. The idea that Vladimir Putin won’t reduce that number to zero, especially as the E.U. and U.S. continue their own campaign of economic warfare against Russia, becomes more farfetched by the day.
That Putin would answer economic warfare measures in kind should no longer be in doubt.
With so much control over the energy fortunes of Europe, and the political fortunes of politicians who will have to face their voters amid a storm of skyrocketing inflation, fuel shortages and killing cold, Putin is holding a good many of the cards.
It is difficult to see how Western leaders can bring him to the negotiating table on the subject of Brittney Griner or anything else.
What do they have to offer Vladimir Putin that he doesn’t already have? He has Ukraine on the ropes, E.U. leaders at his mercy; the Russian ruble is doing better than ever and Putin is selling more cheap energy than he ever did before the war he started.
Into the void E.U. leaders hoped to leave with sanctions and embargoes, China and India have charged, buying twice and five times as much Russian energy as they did last year respectively.
“It’s just a really unfortunate scenario for Brittney,” said David Salvo, a former State Department foreign services officer. “You have a heavily politicized case with lots of attention all over American society and lots of pressure on the Biden Administration.”
“The Russians are going to try to get every bit they can out of this.”
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)