WASHINGTON — Russia said Saturday it had detained an American basketball player – soon identified as Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner – for drug possession, entangling the fate of a US citizen in the dangerous confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine.
Russia’s Federal Customs Service said its officials detained the player after finding vape cartridges containing hash oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, and it published a video of a traveler going through airport security who appeared to be Griner. .
Customs have not released the player’s name, but Russia’s Tass news agency identified the player as Griner, a seven-time WNBA All-Star center for the Mercury.
In a statement, Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, does not dispute the reports of her client’s detention. “We are aware of the situation with Brittney Griner in Russia and are in close contact with her, her legal representation in Russia, her family, her teams and the WNBA and NBA,” she said.
Griner’s arrest comes at the most dangerous moment in US-Russia relations since the Cuban missile crisis, as the Biden administration leads dozens of countries in imposing crushing sanctions on the Russian economy and its political elites. Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin said on Saturday the sanctions were “similar to a declaration of war” on his country.
Also on Saturday, the State Department, which had been warning Americans for weeks against traveling to Russia, released an updated advisory urging U.S. citizens to leave the country immediately, citing the invasion of Ukraine, the “potential for intimidation of U.S. citizens by Russian government security officials” and the limited ability of the US Embassy in Moscow to assist US citizens in the country.
“I don’t know the circumstances of her detention, of course, but Griner’s arrest should be a wake-up call for all Americans in Russia,” said Michael A. McFaul, a former US ambassador to Moscow. “Out. Close your businesses now.”
The video released by Russian customs showed a traveler going through security, followed by footage of someone examining a package that appeared to come out of the traveler’s bag. The screening at the airport took place in February, according to customs, raising the possibility that 31-year-old Griner has been in custody for at least several days.
Customs said a criminal case has been opened against the large-scale transport of drugs, which carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years in Russia. Hash oil, or hash oil, is a marijuana concentrate with a high concentration of the plant’s main psychoactive ingredient, THC. It can be consumed in many ways, but it is often sold in cartridges used in vape pens.
The incident comes amid intense repression in Russia as Putin cracks down on internal dissidents to an extent analysts say they have not seen since the days of the Soviet Communist Party.
In recent years, US officials have accused Russia of detaining and convicting US citizens on trumped-up charges. The detention of a high-profile American could even be an attempt by Russia to gain leverage in the political and economic standoff with Washington over its invasion of Ukraine.
A State Department spokesman said only the United States was aware of reports that Griner had been arrested and that the United States provides consular services to Americans arrested abroad.
The State Department also confirmed on Saturday that the United States, which has closed its airspace to Russian aviation, has allowed a Russian government charter plane to land in the Washington area to help staff of the Russian mission to the United States. To retrieve nations that had been expelled from the United States. States in the past week on suspicion of espionage.
Griner’s agent Colas said in her statement: “As this is an ongoing legal matter, we cannot comment further on the details of her case, but can confirm that as we work to get her home, her mental health and physical health remain our primary concern.”
The WNBA said in a statement that Griner has “the full support of the WNBA and that our number one priority is her prompt and safe return to the United States.”
While it’s unclear whether Russia targeted Griner because he was an American or viewed her detention as a useful negotiating tool with Washington, a Democratic congressman described her case that way on Saturday.
“This follows a pattern of Russia inappropriately detaining and incarcerating American citizens, including Trevor Reed,” Texas lawmaker Representative Joaquin Castro said. wrote on Twitter† “American citizens are not political pawns. Brittney, Trevor and other Americans must be returned safely.”
In 2020, a Moscow court sentenced Reed, a former US Marine, to nine years in prison on charges of assaulting and endangering the lives of two police officers, charges his family and supporters believe are fraudulent and politically motivated.
Earlier that year, another former Marine, Paul Whelan, was sentenced to 16 years in prison on charges of espionage during a trial closed to the public.
The Mercury, the WNBA players’ union and USA Basketball, which oversees the Olympic teams, also released statements expressing support for Griner.
Many WNBA players compete in Russia, where salaries are more lucrative, during the off-season of the American league. Griner has been playing for the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg for several years.
According to the Her Hoop Stats website, Griner will earn approximately $228,000 from the Mercury in the 2022 season, just below the league’s maximum salary. Some players have made significantly more money with Russian teams, such as Griner’s Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi, who made about $1.5 million in 2015 from UMMC Ekaterinburg.
Some American players began making plans to leave Russia after the invasion of Ukraine, and a WNBA spokeswoman said on Saturday that all WNBA players except Griner were from Russia and Ukraine.
A Houston native, Griner became a transformative talent in college basketball during her celebrated tenure at Baylor, where she was all-American three times.
Before Griner, only a handful of women had ever dunked a college game. Griner’s dunks were expected during her time at Baylor, where she led the Lady Bears to a national championship in 2012. She is the only player in NCAA history, male or female, to have accumulated at least 2,000 points and 500 blocked shots.
The Mercury selected Griner with the best pick in the 2013 draft and paired her with Taurasi, another top player of the game, and the team captured the WNBA title in 2014.
Griner later won gold medals with the U.S. women’s national basketball team in 2016 and 2021. She is one of the few players to have won a college championship, WNBA and Euroleague titles, and an Olympic gold medal.
Aishvarya Kavi reporting contributed.