Getting WNBA star back from Russia won’t be easy, expert says

Published: Mar. 7, 2022 at 9:07 AM CST
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(CNN) - A seven-time WNBA all-star center and two-time Olympic gold medalist for Team USA, Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner is now a prisoner in Russia.

She has been detained in Moscow on drug charges and faces up to10 years in prison.

Diplomats are working to get her home, but it won’t be easy. As the ties between the U.S. and Russia crumble, she is caught in the middle.

Russian customs officials said they found vape cartridges that contained cannabis oil in Griner’s luggage at an airport near Moscow in February. She remains in custody.

Phoenix Mercury's Brittney Griner elbows Chicago Sky's Stevanie Dolson during the second half...
Phoenix Mercury's Brittney Griner elbows Chicago Sky's Stevanie Dolson during the second half in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021, in Chicago. Griner has been detained in Russia on drug allegations.(Paul Beaty | AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

“I’ve talked to a couple of sources, and they said it’s been a couple of weeks that this has been going on. One source said since the NBA All-Star Game,” said Christine Brennan, a CNN sports analyst.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave few specifics on Griner’s case.

“Whenever an American is detained anywhere in the world, we, of course, stand ready to provide every possible assistance and that includes in Russia,” he said.

The episode comes as the U.S. has implemented economic sanctions on Russia as its assault on Ukraine intensifies.

On the timing of the arrest, “I think it tells you everything,” said Nikolay Marinov, associate professor of political science at the University of Houston. “They ... the trajectory of the case now will probably be different. And so, they will definitely look for sort of a certain bargaining chip effect, propaganda effect.”

Given the timing of this, the U.S. has limited leverage given what’s going on in Ukraine, Marinov said.

“So, President (Vladimir) Putin has declared that the West is at war with him by levying these economic sanctions. He has likened them to war. And so there’s being an American citizen who can potentially be accused of carrying a substance that she’s not supposed to be carrying,” he said. “Of course, whether that actually corresponds to the facts, we don’t even know, and I wouldn’t put anything beyond the authorities there. But so, yeah, this this is probably a propaganda trick.”

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who represents Griner’s home city of Houston, is calling for her release.

“I don’t want to disregard a sovereign nation, but Putin has disregarded sovereign nations his entire service in this world. And anyone that is killing and attacking and destroying Ukraine, their neighboring country that has not bothered them has no right to hold Ms. Griner, period,” she said.

Griner’s wife broke her silence in an Instagram post thanking everyone for their support and writing: “Please honor our privacy as we continue to work on getting my wife home safely.”

Back home in Houston, Debbie Jackson, Griner’s high school coach grew emotional, worried Griner could face severe consequences.

“My biggest fear is that this will become a ... that she’ll be a political pawn,” she said. “I would tell her, please know that you are loved by so many people. You’ve always had a true resolve and grit to get to the finish line and know that it’s gonna ... you will get to the finish line, this trial you’re going through, this ordeal.”

There’s an online petition now to get Griner home safely.

The petition is called “Secure Brittney Griner’s swift and safe return to the U.S.” started by journalist, Tamryn Spruill, who covers women’s basketball.

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