When Brittney Griner landed at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport on Feb. 17, she was most likely jet-lagged and tired from being cooped up on a 13-hour-long flight (when you are 6-foot-9, even first class feels tight). Griner was used to it. Since 2014, she has played for UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA’s offseason. She still had a way to go — Yekaterinburg, the team’s hometown, is about a two-hour flight from Moscow. Like many weary travelers, she must have longed to crawl into bed and fall asleep. A security dog dashed any hopes of this happening by sniffing her luggage and flagging it for inspection. Customs officers found vaping cartridges with cannabis oil, and Griner vanished into Russia’s security system.

Last Thursday — more than five months after her detainment — a court in Khimki sentenced Griner to 912 years in prison for attempting to smuggle marijuana, which is illegal in Russia. She is now at the center of a geopolitical conflict between the United States and Russia.

Russian officials say they are simply following due process under Russia’s law. The evidence, however, beggars belief. Griner testified that police asked her to sign documents without properly explaining her rights. She is not fluent in Russian, and at one point she tried to translate the documents with her phone. Cannabis is illegal in Russia, but the airport’s website advises that psychotropic drugs can enter if declared with medical proof (what types of cannabis oil qualify as psychotropics is debated). If so, Griner would have been guilty of neglect; her lawyers presented proof that the oil — less than a gram — was medically prescribed, and Griner said she accidentally took the cartridges while hastily packing.

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Compare this to the case of Audrey Lorber, who in 2019 as a 19-year-old committed the same crime. Customs found 19 grams of medical cannabis in her possession. Lorber did not forget her prescription, but that made no difference. She was convicted of smuggling drugs and sentenced to time served (about a fortnight) and fined 15,000 rubles ($235), per CBS News. Griner, on the other hand, was sentenced to nearly a decade in prison and fined 1 million rubles ($16,400).

Some have claimed that Russia is treating Griner differently because of her race (Griner is Black, and Lorber white) and sexual orientation (Griner is lesbian). These are reasons worth considering, though when it comes to prosecuting marijuana, Russia is an equal-opportunity place. In June, the Khimki court sentenced Marc Fogel, a school teacher in Moscow and former embassy worker, to 14 years in prison for carrying 17 grams of marijuana, according to Radio Free Europe. Fogel also said it was prescribed after back surgery.

Griner’s case deviates considerably from these previous cases. She is a global basketball star. She is a two-time Olympic-gold medalist. Her WNBA résumé runs for more than 12 pages. And in Russia, she is one of the best foreign players to grace their courts. In the six-odd years she has played for UMM Ekaterinburg — which has dominated the league in recent decades — she won player of the year three times, according to data from Eurobasket, a website that tracks league scores. She is no stranger to Russia.

Her case is also more prominent. Cases like Lorber’s and Fogel’s garner some media attention and usually the support of their House representatives. Griner’s has been headline news for months. 

Perhaps most conspicuous is the timeline of her detainment: she was arrested Feb. 17, but news didn’t emerge until March 5 — about two weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.

Poker face

Prisoner swapping is a tradition that goes back to the Cold War. Soviet and U.S. officials would meet in clandestine locations, such as the Glienicke Bridge, known as the “bridge of spies,” that linked West Berlin to East Germany, and traded political prisoners and spies.

Russia appears to be using Griner in a similar manner. The day after she was sentenced, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced Russia was ready to discuss a prisoner exchange with the U.S. But to what end?

One reason could be financial. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the U.S. has slapped dozens of sanctions on Russian exports, imports, financial services, travel and oligarchs, according to the Peterson Institute for International Economics. President Joe Biden is under domestic pressure to free Griner, and he may be wary of provoking Russian President Vladimir Putin by further isolating Russia from the global financial system. 

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This would also explain why the U.S. has not sanctioned Iskander Makhmudov, a mining magnate who owns UMM Ekaterinburg. Makhmudov attended Putin’s oligarchs meeting the day of the Ukraine invasion, according to reporting by The Washington Post. The State Department has targeted many oligarchs close to Putin with sanctions to prevent them from helping him circumvent sanctions through offshore accounts. Makhmudov is worth $6.4 billion, according to Forbes.

Russia could also trade Griner for Viktor Bout, an arms smuggler known as the “merchant of death.” In 2012, Bout was sentenced by a court in Manhattan to 25 years in jail for selling weapons to terrorist organizations. Ever since, Russia has tried to secure his release. Putin’s motives for wanting Bout are a mystery, but intelligence analysts believe that Bout has valuable knowledge about Russia’s military, according to The Washington Post.

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Since invading Ukraine, Russia has become a pariah in western diplomatic circles. The U.S. and Europe have cut its access to a large portion of the global economy. Putin’s invasion is not going as planned — thanks to foreign military aid, Ukraine has proven resilient. Russia still has access to vast energy and food resources, which it leverages for its benefit, but it is under serious financial and military strain. 

Prisoner swaps, however, give Russia an asymmetric edge. The pressure is on the U.S. side to free Griner, as well as other American prisoners, not necessarily on Russia to recover Bout. Putin would gain a mercenary, who is a threat to U.S. security, in exchange for civilians. And at least at home, Putin controls the narrative — a narrative which purports that Russia is capable of standing on par with the U.S.

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