WASHINGTON – Russia announced on Saturday that it had detained an American professional basketball player – later identified as the Phoenix Mercury Center Britney Grinner – on drug charges, entangling the fate of an American citizen in a dangerous confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine.
Russia’s Federal Customs Service said its staff had detained the player after finding vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage at Sheremetyevo Airport near Moscow, and released a video of a passenger passing through the airport’s security guard, who appeared to be Griner.
Customs did not reveal the name of the player, but the Russian news agency Tass, citing a source in law enforcement, identified the player as Griner, a seven-time center of all WNBA stars for Mercury.
In a statement, Greenner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Kolas, did not dispute reports of her client’s detention. “We are aware of the situation with Britney Greener in Russia and we are in close contact with her, her legal representation in Russia, her family, her teams and the WNBA and NBA,” she said.
Greener’s detention comes at the most dangerous moment in US-Russian relations since the Cuban Missile Crisis, as the Biden administration has led dozens of nations to impose crushing sanctions on Russia’s economy and political elites. Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Saturday that the sanctions were “similar to declaring war” on his country.
Also Saturday, the State Department, which has been warning Americans not to travel to Russia for weeks, released an updated council urging US citizens to leave the country immediately, citing the invasion of Ukraine, “the potential for harassment of US citizens by the Russian security government officials ”and the limited ability of the US Embassy in Moscow to assist American citizens in the country.
“Obviously I don’t know the circumstances of her detention, 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. “Get out. Close your business now.”
A video released by Russia’s Customs Service shows a passenger undergoing a security check, followed by footage of someone examining a package that appears to be from the passenger’s bag. The inspection of the airport took place in February, according to the Customs Service, which increases the possibility that the 31-year-old Greener was in custody for at least a few days.
The Customs Service announced that a criminal case has been opened for the transportation of drugs on a large scale, which could lead to a sentence of up to 10 years in prison in Russia. Hashish oil or hashish oil is a marijuana concentrate that has a high concentration of the plant’s main psychoactive ingredient, THC. It can be consumed in many ways, but is usually sold in cartridges used in vape pens.
The incident comes amid intense repression in Russia as Putin breaks internal discord to an extent analysts say has not seen since the Soviet Communist Party.
In recent years, US officials have accused Russia of detaining and convicting American citizens on trumped-up charges. The detention of a high-ranking American could even be an effort by Russia to gain leverage in political and economic opposition to Washington over the invasion of Ukraine.
A State Department spokesman said only that the United States was aware of reports that Greener had been arrested and that the United States was providing 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 return Russian mission staff to the United Nations who were expelled from the United States. nations. He said last week on suspicion of espionage.
Colas, Greenner’s agent, said in a statement: “As this is an ongoing legal issue, we cannot comment further on the details of her case, but we can confirm that while we are working to bring her home, her mental and physical health remains our primary concern. “
The WNBA said in a statement that Greener “has the full support of the WNBA and our top priority is a quick and safe return to the United States.”
Although it is unclear whether Russia may have targeted Greener as an American or seen her detention as a useful tool for negotiating with Washington, a congressional Democrat presented his case this way on Saturday.
“This follows Russia’s pattern of improper detention and imprisonment of American citizens, including Trevor Reed,” said Joaquin Castro, a lawmaker from Texas. wrote on Twitter. “US citizens are not political pawns. Britney, Trevor and the other Americans must be returned safely.
In 2020, a Moscow court sentenced Reid, a former U.S. Marine, to nine years in prison on charges of assaulting and endangering the lives of two police officers, accusations that his family and supporters say are fraudulent and politically motivated.
Earlier that year, another former Marine, Paul Whelan, was sentenced to 16 years in prison for espionage during a trial that was closed to the public.
Mercury, the union of WNBA and USA Basketball players that oversees the Olympic teams, also issued statements expressing support for Greener.
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, Greener will earn about $ 228,000 with Mercury in the 2022 season, which is slightly less than the league’s maximum salary. Some players have made significantly more money with Russian teams, such as Mercury’s Green teammate Diana Taurasi, who reportedly won about $ 1.5 million with UMMC Ekaterinburg in 2015.
Some US players have begun plans to leave Russia following the country’s invasion of Ukraine, and a WNBA spokesman said on Saturday that all WNBA players except Griner are outside Russia and Ukraine.
Houston-born Greener became a transforming talent in college basketball during his illustrious tenure in Baylor, where he was a three-time American.
Before Greener, only a handful of women immersed themselves in a college game. Greener’s stabbings were expected during her stay in Baylor, where she directed Lady Bears to the 2012 National Championships. She is the only player in NCAA history, male or female, to score at least 2,000 points and 500 blocked shots.
Mercury chose Griner with the best pick in the 2013 draft and paired her with Taurazi, another of the best players in the game, and the team won the 2014 WNBA title.
Greener later won gold medals with the US Women’s National Basketball Team in 2016 and 2021. She is one of a handful of players to win a college championship, WNBA and Euroleague titles and an Olympic gold medal.
Aishwarya Kavi contributed to the reporting.