What Does Brittney Griner’s Case Mean for Ukraine?

Brittney Griner, a WNBA star who spent her off-seasons playing in Russia, is facing up to ten years in prison for bringing cannabis cartridges into Russia. Griner has already pleaded guilty to the charges levied against her in hopes that the judge will issue a more lenient sentence. Her arrest came one week before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, which has led some to question if her detention is a strategic pawn. With Russia potentially seeking a former arms dealer known for circumventing international sanctions in exchange for Griner, Ukraine has every right to be concerned about this prisoner swap.

Griner penned a note to President Biden pleading for him to do everything he can to bring herself and other American detainees home. The White House press secretary stated that the president had read the note, but Biden still has yet to meet with Griner’s family or discuss the situation publicly. While past negotiations surrounding American detainee have also been shrouded in secrecy, there is added pressure and publicity with the current situation in Ukraine and Griner’s stardom.

After the numerous Russian attacks on civilian locations in Ukraine, officials in Kyiv have intensified their push to have Russia recognized as a terrorist state. U.S. officials are unlikely to designate Russia as a terrorist state, but it is unlikely that they will negotiate with the Kremlin as attacks continue to kill civilians and children in Ukraine.  Any formal negotiations would be perceived as an undermining of the Ukraine-U.S. relationship. Earlier this week, Zelenskyy slammed Canada for granting a permit that would allow the return of turbines from Russia to Germany that help to supply natural gas. Direct dialogue between Russia and the U.S. that excludes Ukraine is likely to draw the same condemnation.

If the U.S. does decide to try and bring Griner home, the price they will have to pay will likely be high. Since her detainment began many have speculated that Russia would want Viktor Bout in return. Bout, an alleged arms dealer, was arrested in 2008 in Thailand on charges of terrorism charges and was extradited to the U.S. where he faced trial. The prospect of the U.S. sending an arms dealer, who carries the nicknames “sanctions buster” and “merchant of death,” directly cuts against many of the efforts the West has undertaken to hold Russia accountable for its invasion.  

Biden is facing opposing pressures. At home, people are calling on him to do whatever it takes to bring Griner home. Allies abroad, including Ukraine, will likely feel betrayed if Biden decides to make an under-the-table deal with Putin. Biden’s decision will likely show which group he has greater concern for and how far he is willing to go to support Ukraine.


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