With the year half way over and Brittney Griner’s incarceration well past the 100-day mark, no clear-cut path for her liberation is in view.

To recap, the international basketball star and double Olympic gold medalist was arrested on Feb. 17 for possession of cannabis oil at the Moscow Airport. She had been on her way to join UMMC Ekaterinburg, the Russian team she has been playing for since 2014, in a convoluted arrangement wherein she can earn several times the $220,000 annually that she makes on the Phoenix Mercury, the WNBA squad which employs her during the regular season.

On Feb. 24, the Russian Federation invaded its former Republic Ukraine (an independent country) following an extended period of friction between the United States and Russia over the possibility of Ukraine joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Since then, Griner has remained in limbo while her government and its affiliates are preoccupied with strategic maneuverings against the Federation’s military intrusion into Ukraine. Her compatriots within the WNBA have remained steadfast in their support of her, while walking a tightrope by avoiding provocative statements which might make her a cause célèbre and impede efforts to free her.

“What we were told, and again this is all sort of passed along through hearsay, but what we were told was to not make a big fuss about it so that they could not use her as a pawn, so to speak, in this situation in the war,” WNBA legend Lisa Leslie said.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said as much in a July 5 press briefing.

“We do not want to do anything or say anything that would potentially jeopardize the chances of seeing an American released.”

This volatile situation is complicated by the ever-evolving relationship between the United States and Russia in all its iterations, as this latest chapter involves the possibility of a significant portion of the former Communist territory being annexed by the opposing forces, and tipping the scales on the global chessboard. 

The Biden administration, in turn, was criticized for not pursuing the matter more aggressively, then admonished by the Russians for their efforts to facilitate closure. 

“The American side’s attempts to foment hype and make noise in the public environment are understandable, but they don’t help to practically resolve issues,” said Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov prior to a court hearing. 

At the July 7 trial, the defendant pleaded guilty, while stressing the substances had inadvertently been placed in her luggage.

Officially, Griner is charged with the “large-scale transportation of drugs,”into the country, an offense potentially bringing with it a prison sentence of up to 10 years (authorities reportedly found 0.702 grams of hash oil in Griner’s luggage, with one gram ranging between $15-$75, according to the website https://www.cannasaver.com).

The Bigger Picture: 

The Aura of Political Intrigue

“The West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country.”

—Former U.S. Secretary of 

State Henry Kissinger

“…we know that the Russians are using these arrests as leverage for other, ulterior aims, because press reports indicate that the Russians hope to trade the American prisoners for Russian criminals imprisoned in the United States.”

— Danielle Gilbert, PhD., assistant professor, Military & Strategic Studies,

U.S. Air Force Academy

The fact that Russia mounted its Ukrainian offensive on the heels of Brittney Griner’s incarceration may or may not be coincidental. U.S. officials, including State Department spokesperson Price, immediately suggested Griner might have been confined to be utilized as a future bargaining chip or collateral for political leverage, as the ebb and flow of relations between the two countries becomes strained.

For the Russians and President Vladimir Putin, the possibility of Ukraine being absorbed into the embrace of their arch rival NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) is a strategic setback on top of the prestige lost when it emancipated from the former USSR (circa 1992).

Currently a political science professor at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, Danielle Gilbert suggests that Griner’s relative guilt (or innocence) are a moot point in these proceedings. Her research has taken her to Dartmouth College, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and the United States Institute of Peace.

“In these cases, it’s difficult to know whether the prisoners committed the crimes they’re accused of committing or whether the Russian government has fabricated or exaggerated them for political purposes.”

Following this train of thought, Griner and her American compatriots are essentially pawns in a larger chess game of brinkmanship regardless of their misbehavior in a foreign land.

“In some sense, it’s irrelevant whether the detained Americans committed any crimes, because the Russian government acts as if the prisoners are guilty,” Gilbert notes. “In some cases of hostage diplomacy, foreigners are arrested with specific leverage in mind: they arrest a foreigner because they hope to coerce a prisoner swap with their own citizen detained abroad.”

American Trevor Reed’s two-year Russian confinement ended on April 28 with a trade for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot implicated by the DEA in transatlantic smuggling of cocaine in the African nation of Liberia. Among those mentioned as possible swap for Griner is Viktor Blout, aka “The Merchant of Death.” He is currently imprisoned at a federal facility in Marion, Ill. 

Blout segued into popular culture when his exploits inspired the 2005 motion picture “Lord of War,” starring Nicholas Cage.

This may or may not have been a motivation from the very beginning.

“…a hostage-taking state arrests a foreigner without a clear, initial sense of demands,” Gilbert adds. “The foreigner’s leverage only becomes clear as their detention wears on and opportunities for concessions arise. It’s entirely possible that the Russians arrested Griner because they suspected her of criminal wrongdoing, but they’re continuing to hold her because they hope to get something — or someone — in return.

More Than a Side Hustle

“We had to go to a communist country to get paid like capitalists, which is so backward to everything that was in the history books in sixth grade.”

— WNBA superstar Diana Taurasi 

in a July 14, 2019 interview with 

ESPNW

A quick Google of Griner’s finances reveal her annual salary as a Phoenix Mercury at $220,000, respectable enough, but trivial compared to the $1 million she received with UMMC Ekaterinburg. 

The collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) yielded strange offspring, including Russian Oligarchs like UMMC Ekaterinburg owners Andrei Kozitsyn and Iskander Makhmudov, who could spend lavishly on discretionary pursuits like sports teams and yachts.

As such, this incurs a tempting incentive. Griner’s Mercury and UMMC Ekaterinburg teammate, Taurasi, opted to sit out the 2015 season at the bequest of her Russian handlers, to be fresh for foreign competition and a $1.5 million salary.

Harm vs. Help?

“I will find that balance of, you know, harm versus help in pushing our government to do everything that’s possible because being quiet, they’re not moving, they’re not doing anything. So my wife is struggling, and we have to help her.” 

— Brittney Griner’s wife Cherelle on “CBS Mornings” July 5, 2202

In today’s miasma of intolerance political rivalry and scandal, Griner represents a trifecta of sorts in that she is 1) Black; 2) a woman; and 3) a lesbian. The country of her incarceration in turn, is known as a bastion of intolerance for the LGBT community, people of color, and other marginalized individuals.

Efforts by her own government to secure her release have been futile. A phone call facilitated by the State Department and White House (and approved by the Russian government) was botched by “logistical errors.” Meanwhile, Griner’s detainment has been extended.

Other, alternative assistance may be in the works. The Rev. Al Sharpton has reached out to the Biden Administration to facilitate an humanitarian visit with the detained athlete.

“It’s my intention to be in Russia next week,” he declared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” television show.

In this, he may be emulating the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who achieved success in a form of “roving diplomacy” going back to the 1980s. Since then, he achieved success in securing the freedom of political prisoners from the Balkans, Gambia, and Syria.

Change.org is a San Francisco-based cause-based blogging platform devoted to myriad social issues, notably a 2016 petition challenging the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 election, and a 2020 petition championing “Justice for George Floyd.” More recently, it has taken up the cause for Brittney Griner’s release, via a petition which can be found at https://www.change.org/p/bring-home-brittney-griner.

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