Former Pentagon official: Russia could use WNBA star Brittney Griner as 'high-profile hostage'

A former top Pentagon official said Saturday that she’s concerned Russia is detaining American basketball star Brittney Griner as “leverage over the United States.”

Evelyn Farkas told Yahoo Sports that Russia may want Griner as a “high-profile hostage” who could serve as a valuable bargaining chip.

“If we want her out of jail, Russia is going to have some terms,” said Farkas, who served as the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia and Ukraine from 2012-15. “It could be a prisoner swap. They also could use it as an implicit threat or blackmail to get us to do something or not do something. Either way, they find it useful.”

Griner was arrested at an airport near Moscow last month after Russian authorities searched her luggage and allegedly found vape cartridges containing hashish oil. The Russian Federal Customs Service issued a statement on Saturday that it has opened a criminal investigation into the large-scale transportation of drugs, which in Russia can carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years.

[UPDATE: Brittney Griner released from Russian prison 10 months after arrest]

While the Russian Federal Customs Service did not name Griner, it referred to the detainee as a two-time Olympic gold medalist with the U.S. women’s national team. The organization also released a 51-second video showing airport security sifting through the luggage of a person who appears to be the 6-foot-9 Griner.

Neither the WNBA nor Griner’s agent denied Russian media reports that it was Griner who had been arrested. In a statement released Saturday, agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas said, “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."

Griner’s arrest potentially could entangle her fate in the confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine. Russia is facing severe economic sanctions from the U.S. and other nations, sanctions that Vladimir Putin on Saturday declared akin to an act of war.

William Partlett, an associate professor at Melbourne Law School and an expert on Russian politics, told Yahoo Sports that Griner is "in more danger now than she would have been pre-invasion." These types of cases are often resolved through negotiations, but Partlett pointed out "there is far less of a U.S. consular presence in Russia right now to help with Brittney's case."

With Russia's government cracking down on all independent-thinking institutions, Griner also can't count on a fair trial. "It is likely," Partlett said, "that the judge and the investigators will be waiting for instructions from above on how to proceed and this might include an attempt to try to use her release as a bargaining chip."

If Russia does try to use Griner for bargaining purposes, Partlett still doesn't expect a speedy resolution.

"Maybe the US has someone in custody who they could exchange?" Partlett said. "But the sanctions and aid to Ukraine will not be lessened in order to get her out."

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - OCTOBER 10: Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury durring pregame warmups at Footprint Center on October 10, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mike Mattina/Getty Images)
Brittney Griner has been detained in Russia on drug charges since February. (Photo by Mike Mattina/Getty Images)

Drew Holiner, an attorney who advises in matters of Russian law, agreed with Partlett that Griner's arrest puts her at risk. There is no way to predict whether Russia is detaining her to use her as a political pawn, Holiner said, but "it’s legitimate to question it because of the incidents we’ve seen in the past."

Griner is one of many American women’s basketball stars who supplement their modest WNBA salaries by playing overseas during the winter. Some of the top teams in Russia or Turkey will pay the world’s best players annual salaries of more than $1 million, almost five times the WNBA’s maximum salary.

Longtime women's basketball agent Mike Cound told Yahoo Sports on Saturday that Griner’s Russian team “pays per month at a level no one matches.” Among the other women’s basketball stars who have previously played for UMMC Ekaterinburg include Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot.

While Cound began advising clients on Ukrainian teams weeks ago to break their contracts and leave the country, he admits he preached a more patient approach for players in Russia. In early February, Cound told one parent who sought his advice that he believed players in Russia were safe.

“Nobody’s attacking Russia," Cound told the parent. "Ukraine’s not going to invade.”

What changed Cound’s mind days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began was the strength of the sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its allies. He realized he couldn’t guarantee that Russian clubs would still be able to pay foreign players or provide flights to get them home safely, nor could he be certain that American players wouldn’t face backlash from Russian citizens.

By late February, Cound said that his lone player in Russia had returned to the U.S., as had the few others who sought his advice. He doesn’t know if every American player in Russia besides Griner returned home, but he also doesn’t know of any who remain there.

It’s unclear how long Griner has been in custody since Russian authorities said only that the incident at the airport took place last month. She last was active on social media on Feb. 5. She last played for UMMC on Jan. 29, just days before the Russian league took a break to allow players to participate in FIBA World Cup qualifying for the first two weeks of February.

Griner is not the first U.S. citizen that Russia has held in custody as tensions between the two nations have escalated.

Last August, a U.S. teacher was arrested with marijuana and cannabis at a Moscow airport and accused of smuggling drugs into the country on a large scale. That followed the detainment of two former U.S. Marines in separate incidents: Trevor Reed, who allegedly got into an altercation with Russian police officers; and Paul Whelan, who was accused of espionage.

American officials have said they believe Russia is using those prisoners as bargaining chips. Farkas sees the Griner situation as potentially more of the same and warns Griner could be imprisoned “for years” just like Reed and Whelan.

“It’s a reminder to people doing business in Russia, living in Russia, traveling to Russia that there is no rule of law,” Farkas said. “In Russia, you are not protected.”