Russia can use Brittney Griner to hurt Joe Biden – and Putin knows it

There’s an unforgettable description in a recent New Yorker profile of Brittney Griner, who endured a hard childhood in Texas to eventually find greatness in women’s basketball.

Griner had grown up “gangly” and tall and gay, and it was the latter that her father could not abide and kicked her out of the house. The two would later make peace, but her experiences would feed her aversion to attention and publicity.

“Brittney Griner does not want to be famous,” her agent Lindsay Colas told the magazine. “She wants to ride her skateboard down the street at dusk with a popsicle.”

Today Griner stands at the highest echelons of her sport, an NCAA, Olympic and WNBA champion. And as was her wont, she took her skateboard with her, as she did every WNBA off-season, when she went to play professional basketball in Yekaterinburg, a city deep within the Russian heartland, in the bitter cold between the Urals and Siberia.

This time she would ride her skateboard straight into the regimental lines of history.

Brittney Griner is caught in the middle

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is escorted into a courtroom prior to a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022.
WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is escorted into a courtroom prior to a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022.

When history goes on the march it can be incredibly cruel. At a different time when history was on the move, Yekaterinburg was the site of epic and tragic events.

It was there in 1918 that Bolshevik revolutionaries awakened the Russian imperial family held captive in a wealthy merchant’s home. They marched them down to a semi-basement where a firing squad killed Czar Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, their four daughters, a son and their remaining servants.

In similar ways, history would pivot on Griner.

On Feb. 17, 2022, she was arrested at a Moscow airport for possessing a small quantity of hashish oil for vaping. She had been returning to Russia.

Exactly one week later, the Russian Army invaded Ukraine, mobilizing the Ukrainian military and destabilizing world order. How this all ends, no one knows. But the young woman on the skateboard is caught the middle.

Russia claims the U.S. is dragging its feet

Some Americans have blamed Griner for her predicament, that she ignored warnings during the Russian mobilization to stay out of that country and for possessing marijuana.

They’re missing the larger point.

Griner is the hostage of a brutal regime that cares little about human life, and certainly nothing about hers. This week it has grown more clear that the Russians are now using Griner, the reluctant celebrity, to yank the chain of the United States and embarrass its president, Joe Biden, who is leading the world opposition to Russia’s invasion.

Despite Griner's imprisonment: Americans still play basketball in Russia

On Monday, a spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry accused the Biden White House of dragging its feet on negotiations for the return of Griner and a second American hostage, Paul Whelan.

“We have said so many times that we're ready to negotiate,” said Maria Zakharova. “If the US embassy in Moscow has a minute of free time, they’ll tell president Joe Biden and he, in turn, will tell the families of Whelan and Griner.”

She accused the United States of provoking “media madness” rather than “fulfilling their direct official duties of maintaining contact with the diplomats of the host country,” as reported in Spain’s national daily sport newspaper Marca.

Get the picture? The Americans are dragging their feet. They’re not particularly concerned about getting Griner back.

This is a Russian lie.

White House has made Griner a high priority

In May, the U.S. government designated Griner as “wrongfully detained” and assigned a special envoy to work with the American embassy in Russia to get her back. Joe Biden has been in contact with both Griner and Whelan’s family members for months and as recently as last Friday.

The Americans have apparently put a deal on the table: Griner and Whelan in exchange for convicted Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout. If the Russians are ready to make an exchange, they know they have an eager partner.

Knowing there is enormous pressure on Biden to bring Griner home, the Russians appear to want to inflict maximum pain on the Biden White House.

With the best intentions of raising Griner’s profile, civil rights advocates made the mistake of using American race politics to try to shame the Biden White House to bring Griner home.

In Russia, they noticed.

“(The Russians) have already won,” Dani Gilbert, a Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy and International Security at Dartmouth, told the New Yorker. “They have embarrassed the U.S. government. They have put the White House in a particularly difficult position because of a political prisoner, and they’re tapping into cultural conflict.

“The fallout here in America – Russia loves it.”

As long as Putin is in power, Griner is in peril 

Even if most Americans do not, Griner understands the peril she is in. In a letter to Joe Biden, she wrote, “As I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, ... I’m terrified I might be here forever.”

As Gilbert told ABC News, “These processes unfortunately, tragically, often take a very long time. When Americans are wrongfully detained or held hostage abroad they may be gone from the United States for months if not years, because we’re dealing with some of our worst adversaries on the world stage.

“It’s not just a matter of what the United States is willing to do to bring our citizens home, but whether or not a state like Russia is willing to accept the offers we put on the table.”

Brittney Griner’s future is in the hands of the thug Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. So long as he rules Russia, he controls her fate.

Russian courts and Russian law and Russian rights are fictions. Putin has mocked all of them with his invasions of Georgia, Crimea, eastern Ukraine and now Ukraine proper.

When you do not live by any civilized standards, you rig the game.

“Russia does have the advantage here, plain and simple,” Gilbert told ABC News. “Hostage taking works and they are showing it’s a really effective way to get the United States to offer concessions and to create political turmoil, to create a difficult situation for the White House and for the president.”

And for Griner, who is somewhere in a Russian prison aching to hug her loved ones and ride her skateboard again.

Phil Boas is an editorial columnist for The Arizona Republic. Email him at phil.boas@arizonarepublic.com.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Brittney Griner helps Russia get what it wants - pain for Biden