WNBA star Brittney Griner detained in Russia: What we know and don't know about what's next

WNBA star Brittney Griner is being detained in Russia after customs officials said they found cartridges of hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow in February. The timing, legal experts and league sources agree, couldn't be worse, coming amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine and a collapse in U.S.-Russia relations.

While reports of her detention prompted messages of concern and support from across the United States -- including from the league, the Phoenix Mercury and U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) -- there are many unknowns about what's next for Griner. Her agent, executive vice president Lindsay Kagawa Colas of Wasserman Media Group, has said she's in close contact with Griner's family and her legal representation in Russia, and Griner's wife, Cherelle, posted a message on Instagram asking for privacy as they work to get her home.

We spoke to Tom Firestone, a lawyer specializing in international criminal and compliance matters who spent eight years as the U.S. Department of Justice's resident legal adviser at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, as well as sources across the league, to get an understanding of what we know -- and don't know -- about what's next for Griner.

When was Griner taken into custody?

In an interview with ESPN, U.S. Congressman Colin Allred (D-Texas) said Griner was detained by Russian officials on Feb. 17. Allred said the House Foreign Affairs Committee, of which he is a member, has been in contact with U.S. personnel at the nation's embassy in Russia, though he said none of those employees has been able to see Griner.

The New York Times was first to report on Griner's detention on Saturday.

What charges is Griner facing?

According to Firestone, Griner has been charged under Russian Article 229.1, illegal crossing of a customs border with illegal narcotics, which can carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. If it's determined she has a "significant" amount, more than 2.5 grams, she could face 10 to 20 years.

What is the road ahead for her?

Experts say there are essentially two paths to a resolution: the Russian criminal justice system, and the political world. And they say it's to Griner's benefit to stay out of the political world. But Russia also has a strong anti-drug culture, so either path could be perilous.

"Her calculus should be to get the best Russian lawyer that she can, scrutinize the evidence, see what legal challenges she may have to the evidence, and try to get it through the system that way," Firestone told ESPN this week. "I don't think she's going to find much help from the political sphere at this point."

The Russian judicial system is currently bogged down by COVID-19 restrictions and overwhelmed with thousands of people arrested in anti-war protests, so it could take months for her case to be heard. That could also work in Griner's favor, Firestone said; prosecutors might want to dispose of her case quickly to deal with the domestic upheaval.

If Griner's case does become political, she's at the mercy of Russian President Vladimir Putin. If he wants to keep her as a chit for negotiations, as he did with an Israeli woman arrested for possession of cannabis in 2019, he will. In the 2019 case, high-level officials from the two countries worked out a deal that gave Russia control of an area in Jerusalem. Putin then pardoned the woman (although Russia denied there was any connection between the events). In that case, there was something specific Putin wanted from Israel. As Firestone and others point out, it's not clear what he would want from the United States as the Ukrainian invasion continues, and the U.S. government has essentially no leverage against Russia.

"Sometimes cases like this are better off handled in a low-key approach through the criminal justice system," Firestone said. "I think the concern is, if it becomes too high-profile, if it becomes political, then the Russian government may dig into their position. It may make it difficult for her to get a good resolution of the case, and she could become a pawn in a bigger political battle."

Can she get a fair trial in Russia?

According to Firestone and other experts, she can, with the aforementioned caveat that her case doesn't enter the political realm. If it's treated as a typical criminal case, she'll have her own Russian attorney who will try to strike a deal with the prosecutor. Odds are she'll have to make some sort of confession, one that is likely to embarrass her. "They'll want their pound of flesh," one attorney experienced with such cases said.

Do we know where Griner is being held?

It is unclear where Griner is being detained.

The WNBA and players around the league have stayed relatively quiet. Why?

The players are aware how perilous Griner's position could be, and they realize the people closest to her had been trying to work out the situation before it became public. The WNBA players are a close-knit group, and most have a lot of experience with international travel and living abroad. But this is a frightening situation for all of them. No one wants to publicly say anything they think could jeopardize efforts to help her. That's also true for the league's coaches, agents and the WNBA itself.

How does the Russian invasion of Ukraine impact American help inside Russia?

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has basically severed any remaining geopolitical ties between Russia and the U.S. President Joe Biden has announced a swath of sanctions aimed at squeezing Putin, his allies and the Russian economy, the latest being a U.S. ban on Russian oil imports. And at the end of February, the United States allowed non-emergency employees and family members to leave its embassy in Moscow.

So not only has the U.S.-Russia relationship broken down, there are many fewer U.S. diplomats in Moscow who might be able to assist Griner with her case. And those who are left have other pressing matters demanding their attention as the Russian military continues to bomb and kill Ukrainian civilians.

How is the U.S. Department of State involved?

When asked about Griner on Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the United States will "provide every possible assistance" to citizens being held in foreign countries. He said the State Department has an embassy team working on the cases of Americans who are detained in Russia and that "we're doing everything we can to see to it that their rights are upheld and respected." He did not mention Griner by name when he made his comments at a joint news conference with Moldova President Maia Sandu, adding he couldn't say much due to privacy considerations.

The State Department issued a "do not travel'' advisory for Russia on Jan. 23 that warned Americans against traveling to Russia because of "the potential for harassment against U.S. citizens, the embassy's limited ability to assist U.S. citizens in Russia, COVID-19 and related entry restrictions, terrorism, harassment by Russian government security officials, and the arbitrary enforcement of local law." Another "do not travel" advisory was issued Saturday, nine days after Russia began its military invasion of Ukraine.

Is Griner in any more danger as a member of the LGBTQ community?

The Russian government has enacted laws aimed at scaling back rights and fomenting societal intolerance for LGBTQ people, in defense of supposed "traditional values."

Griner has been open about her sexuality since she started playing in the WNBA. Players who go to Russia have said they're aware of the climate but felt they wouldn't be targeted because they were high-profile "guests" in the country and would be protected by their teams.

But generally speaking, the Russian government is not friendly toward LGBTQ people, and the fear is that Griner's sexuality will hurt her case.

How does Griner being a U.S. Olympian impact the situation?

Griner won gold medals in the 2016 and 2020 Olympics, along with the 2014 and 2018 FIBA World Cup, and she was expected to be a key part of the 2022 U.S. World Cup team that will compete this fall in Australia. She is a long-established U.S. representative in international basketball.

USA Basketball, the sport's governing body in this country, issued a statement Saturday in support of Griner when the news of her detention broke: "Brittney has always handled herself with the utmost professionalism during her long tenure with USA Basketball, and her safety and well-being are our primary concerns."

Why was Griner in Russia?

Simply put, Griner was there to supplement her WNBA income. She has played in Russia since 2016. Women's basketball players from the United States have competed professionally overseas since at least the 1970s, long before the WNBA began in 1997. Teams in Europe and Asia are generally funded by large corporations or the government, and in the case of many Russian teams since the break-up of the Soviet Union, by oligarchs. Some of them have viewed owning those teams as personal vanity statements.

UMMC Ekaterinburg, the team Griner plays for, is owned by the Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company, a multibillion-dollar corporation that produces nickel, copper, coal and lead. The team is positive publicity for the company and an entertainment perk for its workers, and UMMC has brought in many of the best American players for several years.

Corporate and oligarch backing is how overseas teams can afford to pay top Americans much more -- sometimes over $1 million per season -- than the WNBA, for which salaries are collectively bargained. The current top WNBA salary is $228,094, and each team has a hard salary cap of $1,379,200. The WNBA is set up to try to earn a profit for owners and keep the whole league sustainable and competitively equitable for its 12 teams, whereas in many overseas leagues, team costs are written off as a business expense.

There are typically limits to how many American players each overseas team can have on its roster. But there's an end-around with that: Many Americans obtain dual citizenship so they don't "count" as an American on the roster. Former American WNBA player Becky Hammon received dual citizenship and played for Russia in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. Griner, however, does not have dual Russian citizenship.

Griner, who has played for UMMC Ekaterinburg since the 2015-16 WNBA offseason, and other WNBA players likely had a relative comfort level spending months in Russia. They have spoken about getting bored and feeling lonely and isolated, but they considered themselves safe. Agents have told ESPN that even in early February, they thought their players would be safe in Russia this year, and they were having discussions with the WNBPA throughout the month about player welfare. That changed after the invasion of Ukraine, and agents began working to get clients out of Russia and Ukraine. At that point, Griner already had been detained.

What about other WNBA players who play abroad during the offseason?

The WNBA said Saturday that all of its players besides Griner have left Russia and Ukraine.

Can UMMC Ekaterinburg owners/management play a role in Griner's release?

As mentioned, oligarchs have played a major role in Russian basketball ownership, and UMMC is a huge corporation in the country under the control of owner Iskander Makhmudov and CEO Andrei Kozitsyn. Under normal circumstances, UMMC officials would have an interest in Griner's safety and protection.

However, during a war and under sanctions, Russian oligarchs are dealing with a lot both financially and politically. Whether UMMC would get involved now with an American's legal case in the Russian court system, even though Griner is essentially its employee, remains to be seen. Plus, to the degree that Griner might be seen as a political pawn, the oligarchs' potential involvement might not make any difference.