Brittney Griner Swap Puts Spotlight on Americans in Russia
MOSCOW — After almost 10 months of war, sanctions, nuclear threats and the constant monitoring of the Russian security state, some American and European citizens continue to live and work in Russia, drawn in many cases by professional opportunities and higher salaries.
Some Western athletes, businesspeople and artists chose to stay even as the Russian authorities arrested and jailed the American basketball player Brittney Griner in February on a minor drug charge. On Thursday, she was freed and sent back to the United States in a prisoner exchange for a notorious Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, in a move that some Republican politicians and analysts have said puts other Americans at risk of being wrongfully detained for political gain.
Ms. Griner’s detention has injected a complex new factor into the calculation of whether to travel to, or work in, Russia, an already fraught decision with the war in Ukraine as a backdrop.
More than 1,000 multinational companies have curtailed their operations in Russia since the invasion, with foreign managers often being the first to go. Most Western universities have halted student exchange programs with Russian peers. And most major European and American cultural institutions have ended collaborations with Russian theaters and museums, including the Bolshoi in Moscow and the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg, two of the world’s most storied houses for opera and ballet.
But in other areas the numbers of Westerners have held steady or even grown since Ms. Griner’s arrest. Most choose to come or stay to advance careers, but there are also examples of Americans who made Russia their home for political reasons. Most famously, they include the actor Steven Seagal and the former intelligence analyst Edward Snowden, who just this month took an oath of Russian citizenship.
Athletes have long provided one of the biggest streams of prominent Westerners to Russia. Players “whose careers were declining went there to maintain the same level of income that they were accustomed to,” said Bill Neff, an agent with clients across the world.
After the outbreak of the war, the Russian teams in the Continental Hockey League, which includes Russia and its neighbors, lost nearly half of its foreign players. Finns and Swedes led the exodus, largely abiding by their countries’ hard-line stance toward Russia’s aggression.
But after the initial outflow, some of the European vacancies are being filled by American and Canadian players. They include Scott Wilson, a Canadian who won N.H.L. championships with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and an American, Alexander Chmelevski, both of whom joined Russian teams this fall.
There are now an estimated 42 Americans playing or planning to play in Russia’s premier men’s basketball league, up from 30 a few months ago, according to tallies by American sports agents. An analysis of team rosters shows that there are an additional 29 American and Canadian hockey players who are signed to premier Russian teams this season, with some joining after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. There is even an American playing for the Russian woman’s basketball team that Ms. Griner represented before her arrest.
The Release of Brittney Griner
The American basketball star had been detained in Russia since February on charges of smuggling hashish oil into the country.
- Anxiety Turns to Relief: Brittney Griner’s supporters watched with dismay as her situation appeared to worsen over the summer. Now they are celebrating her release.
- The Russian Playbook: By detaining Ms. Griner, the Kremlin weaponized pain to get the United States to turn over a convicted arms dealer. Can the same tactic work in the war in Ukraine?
- A Test for Women’s Sports: The release was a victory for W.N.B.A. players and fans, who pushed furiously for it. But the athlete’s plight also highlighted gender inequities in sports.
These athletes have stayed despite warnings from the State Department, which is advising all Americans to leave Russia immediately, weighing the risks of playing in Russia against professional and financial opportunities in a major sports market.
Many agents representing American athletes did not respond to queries about Ms. Griner’s detention in Russia. Those who did said the prisoner swap that brought her home had no effect on their work or their clients.
“Griner’s case has to do with things that have nothing to do with basketball,” said David Carro, a Spanish sports agent representing four male American basketball players in Russia. “We never had any problems when Brittney Griner was there, and now, even less so.”
“Our Americans get paid promptly and are living very well in Russia,” he added.
Many American basketball players come to Russia to make money in the off-season or to prolong their careers. Because Russia covets top-level “name’’ players, they often pay high salaries. Athletes can take in more than $1 million and often receive free housing and cars.
Mr. Neff, who represents about 30 professional basketball players, said Ms. Griner’s freedom did not lessen his caution in sending players to Russia during the conflict with Ukraine. He has discouraged his clients from going there and does not currently have any players in Russia.
“I don’t think it changes anything,” Mr. Neff said of her release. “If you send someone to Russia, you know there are risks. Is the increased money worth the risk? That’s the choice you’re making.”
The American basketball player K.C. Rivers, 35, came to Russia in August, while Ms. Griner was on trial, to play for the team of Samara, a provincial capital more than 500 miles east of Moscow.
“At this point I didn’t really have so many options coming my way,” Mr. Rivers said in an interview in September. “What’s the best thing for me right now, towards — I ain’t going to say the end of my career — but in my career at this point? Financially, what makes sense?”
The Russian basketball clubs are playing fewer games this season because of their suspension from Euroleague competition, a penalty that has diminished the quality of players the league has attracted, Mr. Neff said. And Russia’s hockey league voted this month to slash the number of foreigners that will be allowed on each team starting next season, an example of wartime nationalism sweeping the country.
There are still a few Americans imprisoned in Russia. One is Paul Whelan, who was detained in December 2018, convicted of espionage and sentenced to 16 years in a penal colony; the U.S. State Department says he has been wrongfully detained. Marc Fogel, a 60-year-old history teacher, was detained in 2021 for having about half an ounce of medical marijuana. He was sentenced in June to 14 years in a penal colony.
During a visit to Kyrgyzstan on Friday, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia commented on the possibility of new prisoner exchanges with the United States.
“Everything is possible and contacts continue through the special services,” he said at a news conference.
George Beebe, a former director of the C.I.A.’s Russia analysis and a Russia adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, said that while there were risks for Americans in Russia, he did not think the Bout-Griner swap had increased the chances of an American’s being arrested on trumped-up pretexts.
“For American citizens that are living and working in Russia, I wouldn’t say that there is no danger,” Mr. Beebe, the program director at the Quincy Institute think tank, said in a telephone interview. “Certainly there is. The Russian government is not likely to be at all lenient in dealing with Americans. They’re not going to give any Americans the benefit of the doubt.”
However, he said, “I don’t think it increases the likelihood that the Russian government is going to arrest Americans.”
Andrei A. Soldatov, a Russian journalist who specializes in the security services, said it was hard to make predictions when the rules of the game are constantly changing. During the Cold War era, he said, the rules were defined and predictable. But with the war in Ukraine continuing to escalate, diplomacy is entering uncharted territory.
“We all have this temptation always to compare this to the Cold War, but this is nothing like that,” he said in a telephone interview.
“The Cold War was a period when nobody wanted or was actually interested in a hot war. And now we have a really big war which might get bigger,” he said. “Nobody can actually rationalize or predict and develop a strategy accordingly — that’s a problem.”
Valerie Hopkins reported from Moscow, Anatoly Kurmanaev from Berlin and Jonathan Abrams from Charlotte, N.C. Matthew Anderson contributed reporting from Berlin, and Milana Mazaeva from Washington.