Russia’s arrest of Brittney Griner, WNBA basketball star from Houston, adds to escalating global conflict

Brittney Griner, of the United States Women's Basketball team, during the gold-medal match against Japan at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in Saitama, Japan on Aug. 8, 2021. (Reuters/Phil Noble, Reuters/Phil Noble)

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HOUSTON — As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine intensifies, the former Soviet power announced on Saturday that it detained an American basketball player from Houston last month, the latest in the quickly worsening relations between Russia and the United States.

Brittney Griner, a Baylor University graduate and seven-time WNBA All-Star center for the Phoenix Mercury, was arrested at Sheremetyevo International Airport near Moscow after arriving from New York in February with what Russian officials said were vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.

The Russian Federal Customs Service said it had filed the drug charge, which can carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years. The Russian news agency TASS identified Griner as the person who had been arrested. Many WNBA players compete in Russia, where salaries are higher, during the American league’s off-season. Griner has played for the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg since at least 2014.

The WNBA could not be reached Saturday and neither could Griner’s family. But her agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, told CBS News that they are aware of her case.

The agent added: “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 move by President Vladimir Putin’s administration likely escalates the ongoing conflict between Russia and the West. On Saturday, the State Department issued a travel advisory urging Americans in Russia to leave “immediately,” citing “arbitrary enforcement of local laws. The advisory warned that “the U.S. Embassy has severe limitations on its ability to assist U.S. citizens” who stay.

Asked about Griner’s detention, the State Department said it was aware, but did not detail what it has done to help since she was first detained three weeks ago, or why the arrest only now came to light.

“Whenever a U.S. citizen is arrested overseas, we stand ready to provide all appropriate consular services,” a spokesperson wrote in a statement.

Russia raised global alarm as its troops moved into Ukraine last month in the largest military attack in Europe since World War II. Putin said the goal was to demilitarize and “denazify” Ukraine, which has about double the population of Texas, but a similar landmass.

Experts said Russia’s announcement of Griner’s arrest might not only serve as a distraction from its failing military attacks in Ukraine, but also send a message that Americans are not above the law.

They cited concerns about whether Griner actually committed the crimes of which she stands accused. Even if she did, experts said, the relatively minor drug offenses hardly called for a 10-year sentence. It was not clear what law would justify that potential sentence; Russia’s criminal justice system, much like China’s, is very opaque.

“What this person did is such a small thing compared to what we're seeing in the Ukraine,” said Richard Stoll, who specializes in international conflict at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston. “There’s no equivalence at all here.”

Griner’s chances of being freed quickly seem slim, Stoll said, describing her as a pawn “of the power structure.”

From the perspective of Russian officials, he said, “it's like, well, it's unfortunate for this person, but this is a card we can play against the United States.”

The Ukrainian military has overperformed in its battle with Russia, which so far has failed both militarily and from a public relations standpoint, said Joe Barnes, an international oil expert at Rice University, who along with other experts said that Putin was likely behind the decision. The U.S. and European Union have levied some of the harshest sanctions against Russia in recent international history.

“Putin has pushed himself into a corner,” Barnes said. “The U.S. Embassy is asking American citizens to leave Russia at least in part because of fear of harassment. So that all fits into the pattern.”

Griner’s likely penalty in this context is almost certainly “unwarranted,” Barnes added.

“It’s terrible,” he said. “But I think it's about Number 500 on President Biden's list of priorities,” given Washington’s debate over no-fly zones in Ukraine and possibilities of oil sanctions. It has added to a global crisis that promises to impact Texans by increasing prices at the pump and potentially stoking heightened activity in the state's oil fields as the world searches for alternatives to tainted Russian supply.

Griner, who graduated from Nimitz High School in Houston, attended Baylor University in Waco on a basketball scholarship. As a freshman, her 223 blocked shots set the all-time single-season record, establishing her as one of the greatest shot blockers in women's basketball history.

A spokesperson for Baylor University’s Department of Athletics, Krista Pirtle, called the arrest alarming.

“Our foremost concern is for her safety and well-being during this difficult time in Russia and her eventual safe return to the United States,” Pirtle said.

In 2013, Griner was the Number 1 overall pick at the WNBA Draft, and publicly discussed being lesbian soon after. Under Putin, the Kremlin has often engaged in homophobic persecution to assert his regime’s control and to portray homosexuality as part of Western decadence. Putin has become a growing figure of admiration for some far-right Americans who associate him with white Christan nationalism. In a political conference last month in Florida, for example, far-right extremist Nick Fuentes asked for a round of applause for Russia.

Former President Donald Trump often expressed sympathy toward Russia and to Putin, a stance that has divided the Republican Party. His vice president, Mike Pence, on Friday said there was no room in the GOP for “apologists for Putin,” a statement widely interpreted as a rebuke of Trump.

In an interview with ESPN last fall, Griner said she opened up about her sexuality because she didn’t want anybody to look into the mirror “and not liking what you see.”

“It’s not like I ever told anybody I wasn't gay, but I wasn't giving everybody my whole authentic self,” she said. “I feel like I came out to myself and the world at the same time.”

Washington Bureau Chief Abby Livingston contributed to this report.