Is Brittney Griner a political hostage? Was her sentence on drug charges predetermined by the Russian government? Will she return safely to the United States at some point?
Rice University political science professor Richard Stoll, who focuses on international relations, addressed these questions Friday during an interview on Houston Matters with Craig Cohen.
Stoll described an announcement Thursday from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said his government is open to discussing a prisoner swap with the US, as a “very, very positive sign” for Griner. The 31-year-old women’s basketball star from Houston has been jailed in Russia for nearly six months and was sentenced to nine years in prison Thursday after being convicted of drug smuggling and possession charges.
“I don’t think (Lavrov) could come out on his own and say that. I think there is a reality behind it,” said Stoll. “I don’t think that automatically means a trade will happen, but it’s a good sign for him.”
Griner, who played at Aldine Nimitz High School and Baylor University before becoming a two-time Olympic gold medalist and eight-time WNBA All-Star, was arrested in February at a Moscow airport with cannabis oil pellets in her luggage. She later admitted to possessing the substances, which are illegal in Russia, saying she had been prescribed medical marijuana by her doctor in the US and inadvertently packed the pills in a rush to get to the airport.
Russia invaded Ukraine about a week after Griner’s arrest. In May, the US State Department said Griner was being wrongfully arrested.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced in late July that the US had offered Russia a deal aimed at securing the release of Griner and another imprisoned American, former Marine Paul Whelan. Reuters reported on Friday that the US offer includes the corresponding release of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, citing anonymous sources familiar with the situation.
Stoll said he thinks there’s a good chance such an exchange will materialize. In April, the US released Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko in exchange for former Marine Trevor Reed, who had been imprisoned in Russia since 2019.
“From the point of view of the Russians, how do they want to appear to the world?” Stoll said. “If it’s like, ‘Well, we and the U.S. are on opposite sides in Ukraine, and we have to show the world that we’re not afraid of the U.S. and we oppose them and we can do things to them, “That’s bad for (Griner). She goes to jail. It’s like, ‘This is it. This is the end of the story'”.
“On the other hand, if the attitude at the highest levels of the Russian government is, ‘Well, we oppose the U.S. over Ukraine, but we want to show the world that we’re a great country, etc., etc.,’ this it would be an argument to do something to let him go.”
Stoll said it is possible that Griner’s arrest on February 17 was orchestrated by the Russian government, but he considers it more likely that a lower-level official at the Moscow airport found the cannabis oil while conducting a routine check. luggage.
“After she was caught, everything else is in my opinion something that was approved and/or directed by the highest levels of the Russian government,” Stoll said.
The longer Griner remains imprisoned in Russia, Stoll added, the more dangers he faces.
“I don’t think going to any prison is fun, but I think a Russian prison is generally worse than an American prison,” he said. “She will be seen by some of the prisoners, I believe, ‘she is an American. I can help my situation if I treat her badly, for we are against the Americans.’ So I’m very worried about what will happen to her in a Russian prison, even if we hope she is released very soon.”
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