WASHINGTON — Russia said on Saturday it had detained an American basketball player in Moscow on drug charges, tangling the fate of an American citizen in the dangerous confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine.
Russia’s Federal Customs Service said its officials arrested the player after finding vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage at Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow.
Customs said in a statement that the player had won two Olympic gold medals with the United States, but did not release the player’s name. Russian news agency Tass, citing a law enforcement source, identified the player as Brittney Griner, a seven-time WNBA All-Star center for the Phoenix Mercury. Griner, 31, won gold medals with the United States women’s national basketball team in 2021 and 2016.
In a statement, Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, did not dispute reports of his client’s detention. “We are aware of Brittney Griner’s situation 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 detention comes at the most dangerous time in US-Russian relations since the Cuban Missile Crisis, as the Biden administration leads dozens of nations in imposing crushing sanctions on Russia’s economy and political elites. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said on Saturday that the sanctions amounted to a “declaration of war” against his country.
Earlier Saturday, the State Department, which for weeks had warned Americans against traveling to Russia, issued an updated advisory urging US citizens to leave the country immediately, citing the invasion in Ukraine, the “potential for harassment 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 obviously don’t know the circumstances of his detention, but Griner’s arrest should serve as a wake-up call to all Americans in Russia,” said Michael A. McFaul, former US ambassador to Moscow. “Get out. Close your businesses now.
Russian customs service posted a video of a traveler at the airport who appeared to be Griner going through security. The video showed an individual taking a package out of the traveller’s bag.
The check at the airport took place in February, according to the customs service, which suggests that Griner has been in detention for at least several days.
According to the statement, a criminal case has been opened for large-scale drug transport, which carries a sentence of up to 10 years behind bars in Russia. The basketball player was taken into custody while the investigation was ongoing, officials said.
The incident comes at a time of intense repression in Russia, as Putin suppresses internal dissent to a degree analysts say has 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 false charges. The detention of a high-profile American could even be an effort by Russia to gain leverage in the political and economic standoff with Washington over the invasion of Ukraine.
A State Department spokesperson said only that the United States was aware of reports that Griner had been arrested and that the United States provided consular services to Americans arrested overseas.
Colas, Griner’s agent, said in his statement: “As this is an ongoing legal matter, we are unable to comment further on the specifics of his case, but we can confirm that, while As we work to get her home, her mental and physical health remains our primary concern.”
The WNBA said in a statement that Griner “has the full support of the WNBA and our top priority is his speedy and safe return to the United States.”
The Phoenix Mercury; USA Basketball, which oversees Olympic teams; and the WNBA Players Union also released statements expressing support for Griner.
Many WNBA players compete in Russia, where salaries are more lucrative, during the American League’s offseason. Griner played for Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg for several years.
Griner is expected to earn $227,900 with the Mercury in the 2022 season, according to his hoop stats, just short of the WNBA’s maximum salary of $228,094. Some players have made a lot more money with Russian teams, like Griner’s Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi, who the reports said earned about $1.5 million with UMMC Ekaterinburg in 2015.
Some American players began considering leaving Russia after the country invaded Ukraine, and a WNBA spokeswoman said Saturday that all WNBA players except Griner were outside Russia and Ukraine.
Griner, a Houston native, became a transformative talent in college basketball throughout her famous tenure at Baylor University.
Prior to Griner, only a handful of players had ever dived into a college game. Griner’s dunks became expected during his time at Baylor, including guiding the Lady Bears to a national championship in 2012.
The Mercury selected Griner with the first pick in the 2013 draft and paired her with Taurasi, another of the game’s best players. Phoenix won the WNBA title in 2014.