26 Aug 2022

Basketball star Brittney Griner: A pawn in Putin's war games

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 26 August 2022

An American basketball superstar jailed in Russia - how is Vladimir Putin using the plight of Brittney Griner to advance his cause in the West? 

US WNBA basketball superstar Brittney Griner looks from inside a defendants' cage before a hearing at the Khimki Court, outside Moscow on July 26, 2022. - Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medallist and WNBA champion, was detained at Moscow airport in February on charges of carrying in her luggage vape cartridges with cannabis oil, which could carry a 10-year prison sentence. (Photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko / POOL / AFP)

US WNBA basketball superstar Brittney Griner looks from inside a defendants' cage before a hearing at the Khimki Court, outside Moscow on July 26, 2022. Photo: AFP / Alexander Zemlianichenko

Brittney Griner is an American basketball superstar. Back in February, about a week before Russian troops invaded Ukraine, the 31-year-old was arrested at a Moscow airport after vape cartridges containing cannabis oil were found in her luggage. 

Griner subsequently pleaded guilty to drug-related charges and earlier this month, she was sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony. She denies deliberately breaking the law and her lawyers are launching an appeal.

The basketballer's case has sparked high level diplomatic talks between the United States and Russia, with a possible prisoner swap on the table.

The Detail talks to University of Otago professor of politics Robert Patman about the case, how it's unfolded and what it has to do with the war in Ukraine.

Who is Brittney Griner?

Griner is one of the top players in the American women's professional basketball league, the WNBA.

She plays for the Phoenix Mercury and has WNBA and EuroLeague titles, as well as two Olympic gold medals to her name.

Why was she in Russia?

Griner was in Russia to play during the WNBA off-season.

There's a bit of context to this. 

Griner recently signed a new three-year contract with the Phoenix Mercury, her WNBA team. She is the equal-best-paid player in the league, and her contract guarantees her about US$220,000 per year.

The highest-paid men's basketball player is the Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry. He earns just over $48 million per year. 

Griner would have to play basketball for 228 years to earn what Curry makes in 365 days. 

Because of this pay disparity, many female basketballers play for overseas teams in the WNBA offseason.

These deals are lucrative: Griner earned over a million dollars - more than four times her US salary - for playing a single winter in Russia.

What was found in her luggage?

When Griner arrived in Russia, her bags were searched by Customs officials. It's reported they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil, which is illegal in Russia.

Griner had been prescribed medical cannabis in Arizona. At her sentencing earlier this month, she told the court she made an "honest mistake" and didn't plan or conspire to commit the crime.

What does this have to do with the war in Ukraine?

Robert Patman says Putin is seeking to use "weapons" or "instruments" at his disposal to put pressure on the West, and influence opinion.

"Mr Putin is trying to influence America in relation to the war, by pointing out that they have in their detention one of the most prominent women basketball players in the United States and someone who has to supplement her income by playing in Russian in the off-season.

"I think Mr Putin is conscious that there are voices in the West that are quite sympathetic to [his] argument about the need for a buffer state in Ukraine and security concerns.

"He does present himself as a champion of conservative rights, so you've got some conservative media channels like Fox News and, to some degree, Sky News in Australia, quite sympathetic to this coverage.

"By handing out a harsh sentence, he's drawing attention to the fact that this is a gay black woman who is detained for committing what's alleged to be a drug offence. He knows that there'll be conservative voices in the Western world and beyond that do not see such a sentence as necessarily harsh.

"In a sense, it's helping to divide the West, or particularly the United States...While she's in detention, Mr Putin has the chance to use Brittney Griner to rally his conservative supporters in the United States and elsewhere."

Patman says for Putin, it's a "win-win situation".

"He believes it gives him some leverage over the West...at a time when Russia's fortunes on the battlefield are actually beginning to decline." 

A possible prisoner swap

One of the diplomatic options on the table is a prisoner swap between the US and Russia.

But in exchange for Griner and another American detained in Russia, Paul Whelan, Russian authorities would get the notorious arms trafficker Viktor Bout - known as the "merchant of death" - who's serving a 25-year sentence in the US.

Patman says we don't know yet whether a deal will be done.

"But we do know Anthony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, have apparently made some progress in discussions," he says.

"It's interesting that some Republicans in the United States, including former president Donald Trump, have come out against a deal. In a sense, the Biden administration would like to get this problem over and done with, it would like to remove the leverage Mr Putin is trying to extract from this.

"I think the Putin regime does see this as a valuable pawn in its geopolitical contest with the West."


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