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Why Brittney Griner Is Trapped in Russia

The athlete’s detainment is Russia’s latest engagement in hostage diplomacy.

Words: Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon
Pictures: Abhishek Chandra

On July 7, wrongfully detained WNBA star Brittney Griner acknowledged her guilt in a Moscow court on charges that included transporting narcotics into Russia. While Twitter threads can be helpful, I needed more than 280 characters and a hashtag to explain the intricacies of Griner’s case and its broader implications. On the one hand, Griner’s experience in Russian custody has crystallized US domestic political discourse about pay inequity, LGBTQ rights, and anti-Black racism. On the other hand, it has also highlighted how the Biden administration’s response to diplomatic hostage-taking with Russia has fallen short.

The timing is not coincidental. According to reports, Griner was detained in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on Feb. 17, 2022. The American public wasn’t even aware of her arrest till March, three weeks later. The delay was because of the precarity of her situation due to the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine and the deterioration of diplomatic relations between the two countries that followed. While initially her family and team requested privacy to allow the Biden administration to tackle this international incident, as Griner’s detention continued on, there has been an influx of activity from her supporters demanding her release.

Griner’s arrest and detainment can not be separated from Russia’s war in Ukraine and must be understood within the greater context of Russia’s long-held practice of hostage diplomacy. But what does Russia want?


Danielle Gilbert defines hostage diplomacy as “the taking of hostages under the guise of law for use as foreign policy leverage.” She continues that these cases often occupy a “murky middle ground between legitimate arrests and hostage-taking.” Eventually, the detained person moves “from a hostage to a bargaining chip.” This is precisely what Griner is to Russia. Moreover, her case is now working in tandem with Trevor Reed’s, who was arrested and convicted in a Russian court in 2019 before his release in a prisoner exchange in April 2022, and Paul Whelan’s, who was arrested in 2018, and convicted of espionage in 2020, and remains in a Russian prison.

Griner’s arrest and detainment can not be separated from Russia’s war in Ukraine and must be understood within the greater context of Russia’s long-held practice of hostage diplomacy.

Russia has previously used hostage diplomacy with other countries. For example, in January 2020, an Israeli national, Naama Issachar, received a presidential pardon from President Vladimir Putin on a conviction for drug (marijuana) possession and was serving a 7.5-year sentence. Putin did not grant her pardon petition out of his concern for humanity. It was because he got some major concessions from Israel. Shortly before Issachar’s release, Israel was to transfer ownership of the Alexander Courtyard in Jerusalem. However, the decision has had to go through the Israeli courts. In early March 2020, the Jerusalem District court annulled the decision, and the courtyard remains an Israeli holding. It just so happens that another Israeli citizen, Revaz Raphael Shmertz, was arrested in June 2021 and is facing real estate fraud charges. What has Putin publicly demanded? The return of Alexander Courtyard to Russian ownership.

The United States is facing an exchange for something politically significant to Putin. Russia has telegraphed for months that it is interested in convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout. Russia’s behavior and expectations have been clearly laid out in the Russian state media. Long before Griner’s arrest, but after the detainments of Reed and Whelan, Russia described the imprisonment of Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko were done “absolutely illegally.” Thus, the Israeli examples illustrate how Russia has used hostage diplomacy toward foreign policy aims, and these cases happened for a Russian cultural symbol.

Ahead of the Biden-Putin Summit in 2021, multiple articles discussed the plight of detained Russians in American custody and demanded Americans negotiate with Russia on equal terms rather than as junior partners. For example, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov stated in June 2021, “The Americans should not make a mistake thinking that through some kind of pressure or some verbal techniques they can change our principled position on well-known subjects.” As we know, the summit did not lead to a prisoner exchange, and Russia has since started the most brutal war in Europe since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.

However, the April 2022 exchange of Reed and Yaroshenko is a precedent for what to expect. Yaroshenko was convicted in the United States for drug smuggling, and he was also telegraphed in TASS reports and official Russian press statements. Thus, Russia has been willing to make a deal and do the prisoner exchange, and the terms, at least publicly, are clear — Bout must be returned to Russia. The question for the Biden administration is, is the trade worth it? Yaroshenko was not nearly as high profile as Bout, who was the primary inspiration for the 2005 Nicolas Cage film Lord of War. But Griner is also the highest-profile American held in Russian custody since 1991. Moreover, his drug smuggling charge is much easier to justify for a prisoner swap than the potential release of an arms dealer whose crimes included selling weapons to groups targeting US servicemembers. Bout is ten years into his 25-year sentence while Whelan is only in the first quarter of his 16-year sentence, and Griner’s fate has yet to be decided in the Russian court.


The only way to make a possible prisoner exchange politically feasible for the United States is to demand a two-for-one deal that would get Whelan and Griner for Bout. Even then, it could be a hard sell, but it would secure the release of a US celebrity whose detainment has increased pressure on the Biden administration. Before the Trump administration, there was a general US policy consensus that the United States must not negotiate with hostage-takers because it could lead to more Americans being taken by hostile foreign interests. However, Trump’s approach changed this with more hands-on involvement in cases, including Sweden’s infamous A$AP Rocky arrest. While the long-term impact of Trump’s willingness to negotiate for American hostages held by state and non-state actors is yet to be seen, we should consider the reality of Russia’s behavior and how to respond to it.

The refusal-to-negotiate principle did not free the detained Americans in Russian custody. However, Israel did engage on Russian terms. It got one national back, then had another arrested, and is facing the same calls for the transfer of the Alexander Courtyard. Even this equation does not include that Russia is carrying out its brutal war in Ukraine. At the same time, the United States has recently supplied Ukraine with the powerful HIMARS system to defend itself against Russia.

The context of Russia’s war in Ukraine speaks to why the Biden administration must act swiftly to secure the release of Griner and Whelan. We cannot allow Russia’s wrongful detainment of Americans to continue. Furthermore, it is not outside the realm of possibility that as Ukraine uses US-supplied weapons against Russia, Americans detained in Russia could bear the brunt of these actions, including being denied medical care. There are human costs to these policy decisions.

Griner’s detainment reveals the intricacies of the US government’s response to diplomatic hostage-taking and how Russia has used diplomatic hostages to leverage its aims. What remains to be seen is how or if the United States will engage with Russia to secure the return of two of its citizens. Furthermore, the Biden administration must consider how to contend with future Russian diplomatic hostage-taking. This practice has both served Russia and failed to bring Russian goals to fruition, but the United States needs to show Russia that the costs of engaging in hostage diplomacy are too high for any Russian gains.

Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon is a Ph.D. student in History at the University of Pennsylvania. She holds an MA in Russian, Eastern European, and Central Asian Studies from Harvard University.

Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon

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