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WNBA basketball superstar Brittney Griner looks from inside a defendants' cage before a hearing at the Khimki Court, Fans hold signs referring to Brittney Griner of the Phoenix Mercury
Left: Photo by ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images, Right: Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

When Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year, the dominos started to fall throughout Europe, and the economic fallout has been felt globally. While many Republicans will blame President Joe Biden for the rising gas prices, it’s really due to price gouging on the part of major oil companies in response to Moscow’s advance on their neighbors.

We seem to have plunged into another Cold War, but this time around it’s not just the United States and Russia in a standoff. Russian President Vladimir Putin is a power-hungry charlatan who rules with an iron fist. Many Russian people have protested Putin’s war and have found themselves behind bars for it, further exemplifying the Russian state’s not great reputation for human rights.

Brittney Griner’s Wrongful Detainment

Brittney Griner goes up for a layup.
Photo by Sebnem Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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The ripple effect the invasion of Ukraine has had on the sports world has been tough. And that extended most recently to WNBA star Brittney Griner. The American basketball player landed in Russia in February, prepping to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg, a Russian women’s basketball team.

Griner, like many WNBA players, is forced to play ball abroad during the WNBA offseason to supplement her income and to stay fresh and in shape. In the US, she plays for the Phoenix Mercury, but the salary that comes with her WNBA play doesn’t quite cut it.

While critics will say something dumb like “the women’s game is boring”, “nobody goes to those games”, or “they don’t deserve to make more”, the fact is there’s a disparity, in tune with the gender pay disparity in the US, between the percentage earned by the WNBA and that earned by the NBA.

Because of this, Brittney Griner found herself traveling to Moscow back in February, and that’s when her life, as well as international relations between the United States and Putin, took a stark turn. The Associated Press reported that, while going through customs, Briner was detained at the Moscow airport after her bags were searched and agents found vape cartridges of cannabis oil. The American basketball star was brought up on drug charges and has been detained ever since. The black, gay, female star was seemingly destined to be taken into custody by Russian authorities.

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Griner’s trial getting going gave us our first images of her since the video of her detainment went viral back in March. Russian Law dictates that the charges brought against her would force her to serve 10 years in a Russian prison.

What do the Russians Really Want from the U.S.?

Ultimately, Griner being in Russian custody has nothing to do with hashish oil or anything else Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will spew to the public. The reality is the Kremlin saw this as an opportunity to seize a high-profile American from Sheremetyevo Airport and have something to hold over the U.S. Government.

ESPN and CNN reported that Griner signed documents at the airport during detainment that were not properly explained to her. She went on further to say that the translator only translated some of the explanation, and she seems to have been purposely misled. But the Russian Foreign Ministry will of course refute any claims of wrongdoing on their part.

The way this has played out has been incredibly frustrating, and Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, has been pleading with the White House and the U.S. State Department to find a way to bring her home. The two-time Olympic gold medalist is simply being used as a pawn, and it isn’t the first time the Russian state has done such a thing.

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Just this spring, Trevor Reed, a U.S. Marine, had his freedom successfully negotiated after spending three years in a Russian prison. He has told ABC News that he’s cautiously optimistic that a similar deal can be struck between the two nations.

Griner’s lawyers, including Russian expert Maria Blagovolina, had advised Griner to plead guilty, as that was likely to be a term the Kremlin would require in order to secure her release. But whether the Russian court will stick to anything they’d say and end Griner’s detention is unlikely.

A Prisoner Swap is on the Table

WNBA basketball superstar Brittney Griner arrives to a hearing at the Khimki Court, outside Moscow
Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images

Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that U.S. officials have submitted a substantial proposal to Russia to secure the release of Griner and former marine Paul Whelan. And, while this is a seemingly great step in the right direction, there’s a lot of criticism being lodged against the Biden Administration for this. There are other, lower-profile Americans who are wrongfully imprisoned in Russia, so some will argue that Griner’s release is unfair due to her prominence.

However, others will focus on another big piece of this puzzle. In order to secure the release of Griner and Whelan, U.S. officials have proposed a prisoner exchange. This is where things get really dicey. We’ve seen this type of stuff play out in some of our favorite TV shows and movies. A vicious foreign state wrongfully detains innocent citizens in order to trade for a high profile, likely deadly asset.

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And while that feels like a far-fetched Hollywood story, that’s what’s happening here, and likely what the Kremlin has had in mind since Brittney Griner was detained. It’s not some wrongfully detained Russian that Putin is looking to have released here. The prisoner swap Washington has put on the table would see the release of notorious Russian Arms Dealer Viktor Bout. Bout is also known as the “Merchant of Death”.

He was detained in a DEA sting during which he was to sell anti-aircraft missiles that would be used against American forces by a Colombian militant group called FARC. However, they turned out to be undercover DEA agents. It’s a fine line the Biden Administration is walking here. They won’t negotiate with terrorists, yet that’s exactly what they’re doing here.

What Precedent Does This Set Moving Forward?

US WNBA basketball superstar Brittney Griner sits inside a defendants' cage before a hearing at the Khimki Court
Photo by ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

What fallout will this have for the United States moving forward? Will Vice President Kamala Harris need to be cleaning up this mess and saving face among global leaders? It’s hard to tell. And it’s hard to say unequivocally that they’re doing the wrong thing here.

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Brittney Griner deserves to come home, as does Paul Whelan. But is it going to be a slippery slope releasing Viktor Bout? And what happens with the countless others who are wrongly detained? Are they out of luck?

I suppose this is why I’m not the one making these decisions. But ultimately we need to find a way to get our people home. And Russia needs to be held accountable on a global scale for the horrific manner in which they are acting. While we don’t know exactly what’s happening, it seems, at the very least, that Griner has been treated relatively well all things considered. But that doesn’t change the fact that she shouldn’t have been in there in the first place.

As the coming days roll along, Griner’s testimony may help to unfold further details. But regardless of how what transpires in her trial, it really comes down to a chess match between the United States and Russia. Whether we like it or not, it appears we’re living the Cold War all over again.

MORE: How Much Do WNBA Players Really Make?

Kevin is die-hard New England sports and an avid Tottenham supporter. His qualifications include scoring 1 point in his elementary school basketball career, 4 years of mixed little league results, and breaking his arm with a skip-it days before pre-season workouts started for Freshman football.
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