Russia wants to use Brittney Griner as ‘negotiating chip’, says Democrat

Tim Kaine believes basketball star’s detention is to make her ‘part of this chess game’

A senior Democratic senator has said he believes Russia wants to use the WNBA star Brittney Griner, who has been held in Moscow for more than a month on accusations she smuggled drugs into the country, as a “negotiating chip” regarding the war in Ukraine.

“I think there’s no doubt that her detention, and then this continuation of the imprisonment, is all to try to make her a hostage and a part of this chess game,” Tim Kaine, of Virginia, told Full Court Press in an interview scheduled to air in full on Sunday.

“Vladimir Putin and the Russians want to use her as a negotiating chip and what a horrific thing to do to someone,” Kaine said.

Griner, 31, plays for the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA but plays in Russia during the US offseason. She is a two-time Olympic champion.

She was detained at a Moscow airport on 17 February. Russian authorities said a search of Griner’s luggage revealed vape cartridges allegedly containing oil derived from cannabis, an offense that carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

Griner’s legal team has been seeking her release but amid tensions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine attorneys have declined to speak publicly.

On Friday, a member of a Russian state-backed prison monitoring group claimed Griner was well.

“Her physical condition is fine, she’s holding up fine and I’d even say that she is fairly calm and isn’t anxious,” Ekaterina Kalugina told the Associated Press.

Griner’s lawyers have visited her regularly, bringing care packages including food and personal items, but she has not yet met with a US official, Kalugina said, adding that Griner has made no complaints about her treatment.

Several lawmakers, among them the Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee, have voiced concern that Griner could be used as a political pawn.

“I don’t underestimate anything that Russia would do,” Jackson Lee told the Hill.

The US state department has increased diplomatic pressure on Russia to allow consular access to Griner.

“We are closely engaged on this case and in frequent contact with Brittney Griner’s legal team,” the state department said on Friday. “We insist the Russian government provide consular access to all US citizen detainees in Russia, including those in pre-trial detention, as Brittney Griner is.

“We have repeatedly asked for consular access to these detainees and have consistently been denied access.”

US diplomats have yet to place Griner in a category of American travelers it considers wrongfully detained, a subset that allows for additional government attention under the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.

Griner is one of several Americans detained in Russia.

Trevor Reed, a former US marine, is serving nine years on charges of assaulting police officers in Moscow. A corporate security executive from Michigan, Paul Whelan, is serving 16 years on espionage charges. The US government has said the charges against Whelan are false and called for his release.

There appears little chance of Griner being released quickly. The Russian state news agency Tass said on Thursday a court had extended pre-trial detention to 19 May.

Griner is being held at a facility where an Israeli woman, Naama Issachar, spent nine months in detention after Russian authorities said they found cannabis in her luggage during a stop-over on a flight from India to Israel.

Issachar was convicted and sentenced to seven and a half years in prison before Vladimir Putin pardoned her in 2020.