Houston Matters

International politics professor discusses Griner’s imprisonment in Russia, chances of return to U.S.

Rice University’s Richard Stoll said the odds of a prisoner swap are in Griner’s favor, but he remains concerned about the basketball star’s well-being.

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is escorted from a court room after a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022. A judge in Russia has convicted American basketball star Brittney Griner of drug possession and smuggling and sentenced her to nine years in prison. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Is Brittney Griner a political pawn? Was her conviction on drug charges predetermined by the Russian government? Will she be safely returned to the United States at some point?

Rice University political science professor Richard Stoll, who focuses on international relations, addressed those questions Friday during an interview on Houston Matters with Craig Cohen.

Stoll described an announcement Thursday by Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said his government is open to discussing a prisoner swap with the U.S., 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 on drug smuggling and possession charges.

“I don't think (Lavrov) could go off on his own and say that. I think there’s a reality behind that,” Stoll said. “I don't think it automatically means a swap will happen, but it's a good sign for her.”

Griner, who starred 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 cartridges 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 U.S. and inadvertently packed the cartridges in a rush to get to the airport.

Russia invaded Ukraine about a week after Griner’s arrest. In May, the U.S. Department of State said Griner was being wrongfully detained.

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced in late July that the U.S. had offered a deal to Russia aimed at securing the release of Griner and an another imprisoned American, former Marine Paul Whelan. Reuters reported Friday that the U.S. offer entails 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 a swap will materialize. In April, the U.S. 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 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’s going to prison. It’s like, ‘That’s it. That’s 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. about Ukraine, but we want to show the world that we are a wonderful country, etc., etc.,’ that would be an argument for doing something to let her go.”

Stoll said it’s possible that Griner’s Feb. 17 arrest 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 search of luggage.

“Once 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 she figures to face.

“I don’t think going to any prison is a fun thing, but I think that a Russian prison is overall worse than an American prison,” he said. “She will be seen by some prisoners, I believe, as, ‘She's an American. I can help my own situation if I treat her badly, because we are against Americans.’ So I am very concerned about what will happen to her in a Russian prison, even if hopefully she gets released really soon.”

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