What Will It Take To Get Brittney Griner Out Of Detention In Russia? : Consider This from NPR When the Women's NBA All-Star Game gets underway this weekend, the league will be missing one of its superstars, Brittney Griner.

The two-time Olympic gold medalist and star center for the Phoenix Mercury has been detained in Russia on drug smuggling charges since February.

This week, Griner pleaded guilty to the drug charges, saying she did not intend to break the law. If convicted, she could face a maximum penalty of up to ten years in a Russian prison. The country's prison system is known for some of the harshest conditions in the world.

Her supporters have called on President Joe Biden to step up efforts to bring her home. But negotiating with Russia, about anything, is seldom easy.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment to help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

What Will It Take To Get Brittney Griner Out Of Detention In Russia?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1109337519/1110700734" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHERELLE GRINER: I'm frustrated that a hundred and forty days have passed since my wife has been able to speak to me, to our family and to our friends.

MILES PARKS, HOST:

Cherelle Griner is counting the days since her wife, Brittney Griner, was accused of smuggling hash oil into Russia. She's been detained there since February.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRINER: I'm frustrated that my wife is not going to get justice.

PARKS: The WNBA superstar and two-time Olympic gold medalist's trial is underway in Russia. She pled guilty this week to drug charges, which some legal experts think may be a strategy for leniency or a shorter trial. But if convicted, Griner could face up to 10 years in a Russian prison. Brittney Griner isn't the only American currently detained by Russia. And many people, including the executive director of the Women's Basketball Players Association, suspect that her arrest is the Kremlin playing politics.

TERRI JACKSON: They know who they have. They know that they have an American, a highly decorated American, as an Olympian, as a WNBA player.

PARKS: In May, the United States declared that Brittney Griner was wrongfully detained, a classification that opens the door for further diplomatic actions. Elizabeth Rood, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, has been present at Griner's trial.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIZABETH ROOD: I can assure you that the United States government at the very highest levels is working very hard to bring Ms. Griner, as well as all wrongfully detained U.S. citizens, safely home.

PARKS: But Griner's wife and supporters in the women's professional basketball community want the United States to do more.

NNEKA OGWUMIKE: No member of our global sporting community should ever be used as what seems to be a political pawn at this point. And we're imploring upon the White House to do everything possible to bring her back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRINER: Let's make sure this administration knows that they have our support to do whatever is necessary and that we are not going to ever be quiet until she's home safely.

PARKS: In a handwritten letter delivered to President Biden this week, Griner made her own appeal right here on CBS Mornings.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'm terrified I might be here forever. Griner also had this plea for the president - I believe in you. I still have so much good to do with my freedom that you can help restore. I miss my wife. I miss my family. I miss my teammates. It kills me to know they are suffering so much right now.

PARKS: CONSIDER THIS - as Brittney Griner nears her sixth month of detention in Russia, her supporters have intensified their push to get the Biden administration to prioritize her case. But will diplomacy be enough to bring Brittney Griner back home?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PARKS: That's coming up. From NPR, I'm Miles Parks. It's Saturday, July 9.

It's CONSIDER THIS from NPR. Earlier this week, more than a thousand Black women leaders signed a letter urging President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to negotiate an immediate deal to get Griner back home. Nadine Domond, head coach for the women's basketball team at Virginia State University, signed that letter. Domond spoke with my colleague, Juana Summers, host of All Things Considered.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: For a long time, we did not hear much about Griner's detention. And even now, many people feel like her case is not getting the attention that it should. Your letter speaks to that. Why do you think it has not gotten enough attention?

NADINE DOMOND: Because I think for many people, it's like, what do you mean? She's overseas? What is she doing overseas? Why is she going overseas? So there's so many unanswered questions that many average Americans wouldn't know, like why is she in Russia? Why she's doing what she's doing. People don't know that many former WNBA players or WNBA players work year round. So she's on her way going to Russia to make another living, to continue her living, and to be detained on something that, to me - I don't know their rules, but I know Brittney wouldn't do anything to break the law on purpose. I know Brittney wouldn't do anything to step outside the boundaries what is expected of her. And I'm just praying and hoping that she can get recognized by President Biden and all the people that has been petitioning on her behalf to bring her home safely and be home.

She's a patriot - played for United State basketball, been on the Olympic team, have done so much for this country. And, you know, she's us. She's one of us. She's a female. She's Black. And she's a basketball player that has done a lot. And I think, you know, a lot of people don't - they can't relate maybe. And maybe that's why it hasn't gained attention or the momentum, you know? If it was LeBron, everybody would be in an uproar because they have a connection with LeBron. They have a idea. They have a touch, a feel. And because Brittney Griner doesn't have that with so many Americans, maybe that's the reason why we don't have the uproar as anybody else.

SUMMERS: And we should just speak plainly about this - many female professional basketball players go abroad to play because of the wide chasm in salary disparities between women who play the sport and their male counterparts.

DOMOND: I think, eventually, the WNBA will get to a point that young ladies don't have to go overseas to support themselves. But till then, many young ladies like myself - we played in the league, and then that - you know, the following September, you're overseas to continue your lifestyle - to continue your job. So with that being said, that's what's going on with her. If she was probably in the States and she could've made the money that she needs to make to - you know, to continue her lifestyle, to support her family, we wouldn't even be having this conversation. But because she had to go to Russia, which is one of the premier markets when you go overseas, and now you're in this situation because you're going to work, you get arrested, and you're not able to come back home, it's just unfair - just unfair.

SUMMERS: You mentioned that Russia is a premier market - a premier place for female professional basketball players to go play. Why is that?

DOMOND: Because they pay very well. They pay extremely well. So that's one of those markets that you would like to play in because you're able to - they're able to pay you the salary that you feel like you deserve, and you can negotiate with them.

SUMMERS: Do you think that other professional basketball players - especially women, Black women, gay women like Griner - will look at what happened here and think twice about deciding to play in a place like Russia?

DOMOND: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think just going overseas in general and in the state of so many changes. There's a fluid, changing, constant change of news, with so many world policies and everything. I think you have to really think about the consciousness of - is it worth it? Can I do it? And is it possible? Is it safe? So all those things go in your head. It's not as - like, you know, when I was coming out of school, it was exciting. Like, ooh, I'm going - a chance to play overseas. I'm going to go play in France, or I'm going to go play in Israel. Right now, with the state of affairs, with so many things going on, I think it makes you say, hmm, I might want to sit this one out.

SUMMERS: What would you tell Brittney Griner if you could talk to her today?

DOMOND: Man, I think the first thing I would do - I would give her a big hug. I'd probably pray with her, you know? I'd just, you know, that - you know, pray that God, you know, take care of this and lead this. And also, you know, stay strong, stay encouraged. Everybody here back at home is supporting you, praying for you. And whatever you need, we have - you know, we're going to try to support you. And, you know, whatever - however we can help and support and push this along to bring you back home, let's do that. Who do we need to speak to and get in those rooms so we can bring you home? We need you home. We miss you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PARKS: That was Nadine Domond, head coach of the women's basketball team at Virginia State University, speaking with my colleague, Juana Summers.

Coming up - the political challenges of successfully negotiating freedom for Brittney Griner.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PARKS: This week, Brittney Griner admitted to bringing drugs into Russia, but said she did not intend to break the law. Still, she could face up to 10 years in a Russian prison - a prison system that is notorious for some of the harshest conditions in the world. I spoke with former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, and I asked him to walk us through the diplomatic strategies involved in freeing Brittney Griner.

So I want to start with what happened this week with Griner pleading guilty. Did that plea surprise you, and how does that impact her chances of getting out of Russia?

MICHAEL MCFAUL: It didn't surprise me because I think what they're trying to do is just speed up the process here. Remember, there's no rule of law in Russia. Once you're arrested, there's a 99% conviction rate, I believe - something in that order. So the chances of her getting out through pleading not guilty, I think, were very slim. And my guess is her lawyers made the decision that if they plead guilty, speed up the process, get a sentence, that will get them closer and faster to the process of perhaps some kind of prisoner swap - Brittney Griner for somebody that we hold here in the United States.

PARKS: Reports out of Russia indicate that the Kremlin is interested in a prisoner swap for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. Can I just ask you - is that something, as a former ambassador, that the U.S. should consider?

MCFAUL: Well, when I was the ambassador and I worked at the White House even before then, Viktor Bout was in jail during that time. And we heard many, many offers of of trying to get him out. Remember, he's not just an arms dealer, but, in the Russian system, he's probably linked. And now I'm speculating here, but if you just look at his background and what he did in the past, it sounds like he probably has connections to Russian intelligence services. And remember, the president of Russia does, too - Vladimir Putin. So they want to get him out. They've wanted to get him out for a long, long time. It presents a problem for the United States' system because he's a real criminal, and the Department of Justice convicted him, and he's in jail for a good reason. Brittney Griner is not a real criminal, and so they feel very uneasy about doing those kinds of swaps. That said, we've done it before. Just earlier this year, the Biden administration traded Konstantin Yaroshenko, another Russian prisoner - convicted criminal - for Trevor Reed. And back in 2010, when I was in the government - I was working at the White House at the time - we swapped spies - a dozen of them that we picked up here in the United States in return for four Russians that we wanted to get out of Russian prison. So there is a precedent for these things to happen.

PARKS: Would freeing Bout actively hurt American national security?

MCFAUL: That's a tough call. I can imagine my colleagues in the Biden administration struggling with that and having differences of opinion. My personal view is it's a trade worth taking. I would add others, by the way - not just Brittney Griner. Paul Whelan is unjustly being held. Marc Fogel is another American convicted for 14 years in prison in Russia for the same alleged crime as Brittney Griner. So I would pursue a swap to get all those Americans out. But I think it's worth the trade. Yes, I would take the deal.

PARKS: I want to talk a little bit about the U.S. response so far over the last six months. It feels like, in the past few days, there's been a much more organized push from people in Brittney Griner's orbit to get the U.S. government to take action. Even though she was detained in February, the U.S. did not declare Griner wrongfully detained until May. Why, in your view, hasn't there been more urgency from the U.S. government on responding to this?

MCFAUL: You know, I don't want to presume that that is true. It feels that way, of course, to those that have loved ones in jail. But to presume that because there hasn't been progress, they're not paying attention - I don't think that's the case. You know, in talking to senior Biden administration officials, they've been very focused on Brittney Griner from day one - same with Paul Whelan, same with Marc Fogel. But I just think it's important for people to understand we're dealing with Vladimir Putin and his government. They don't care about rule of law. They don't care about what's right and what's wrong, and that makes it very difficult to negotiate with them.

PARKS: I'm curious on your thoughts on something that's been brought up a bunch over the last six months. Because this is a superstar athlete who is a woman, Griner's coach said this week that if this was LeBron James in custody, that he'd be back in the U.S. by now. I'm curious on if you think that's true and how this would be playing out differently if this was LeBron James or Michael Phelps or any other superstar athlete who was a man.

MCFAUL: I don't know. I personally do not think that's a fair indictment of the Biden administration. I know the people working on this case personally. I know they're doing everything in their power to get Brittney Griner out. And the presumption that somehow she's a woman and they're not focused on it - that is definitely not the perception I have. I just think people need to understand they're all focused on the Biden administration. There's another player here. It's called the Russian government. It's called Vladimir Putin. And one just needs to acknowledge that he is a very difficult person to deal with in his system of government.

PARKS: I'm also curious about the timing here because the arrest of Brittney Griner came right around the same time as Putin's invasion of Ukraine. How do you think those two things are linked, and are they linked in your mind?

MCFAUL: That's a hard question. I don't know the answer, and I hesitate because I know of other cases where they've wrongly detained and arrested and imprisoned Americans long before this war. I do, however, think that, at the end of the day, Putin will be transactional in this case, and he will not try to link a resolution or a swap of prisoners - in this case, alleged criminals - with the war in Ukraine. I think he's capable of separating those two. And my evidence for that is we just did the deal between Trevor Reed and Konstantin Yaroshenko just a few months ago.

PARKS: Obviously, it's hard to predict the future on this, but you've thought about Vladimir Putin's mindset more than most people in the U.S. How do you think this situation ends?

MCFAUL: Well, I hope it ends in a trade. I want to be very clear about that. That's my personal view. And I want all of those Americans - Griner, Whelan, and Fogel - to be traded for Viktor Bout. He is a giant, horrific, real criminal. I think that is a commensurate trade. I worry that it could drag on for a long time because these things are difficult to negotiate, and people are uncomfortable trading criminals. In the U.S. government and the Russian government, it will ultimately take, I think, a political decision at the very top - President Biden on our side and President Putin on their side.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PARKS: That was former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. He's the director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PARKS: It's CONSIDER THIS from NPR. I'm Miles Parks.

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.