Brittney Griner Swap Puts Spotlight on Americans in Russia

MOSCOW – After nearly 10 months of war, sanctions, nuclear threats and constant surveillance by the Russian security state, a number of US and European citizens continue to live and work in Russia, in many cases are attracted by career opportunities and higher salaries.

Several Western athletes, businessmen and artists chose to stay even after Russian authorities arrested and jailed American basketball player Brittney Griner in February on minor drug charges. On Thursday, she was freed and sent back to the United States in a prisoner exchange with a notorious Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, in a move that has prompted several politicians and analysts Republican analysis that puts other Americans at risk of wrongful detention for political gain. .

Griner’s detention has created a new complication in the calculation of whether to travel or work in Russia, a decision already fraught with risk given the war in Ukraine.

More than 1,000 multinational companies have cut their operations in Russia since the invasion, with foreign managers often the first to leave. Most Western universities have suspended student exchange programs with Russian colleagues. And most of the major cultural institutions of Europe and America have end of cooperation with Russian theaters and museums, including the Bolshoi in Moscow and the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg, two of the most famous houses in the world for opera and ballet.

But in other areas, the number of Westerners has remained stable or even increased since Ms. Griner’s arrest. Most choose to come or stay to advance their careers, but there are also examples of Americans who consider Russia their home country for political reasons. Most famously, they include Steven Seagala actor and former intelligence analyst Edward Snowden, new this month declaration Russian nationality.

Athletes have long provided one of the largest streams of famous Westerners to Russia. Bill Neff, an agent with clients around the world, said: “Players whose careers were in decline went there to maintain the level of income they were used to.

After the outbreak of war, the Russian teams in the Continental Hockey League, including Russia and neighboring countries, lost almost half of their foreign players. The Finns and Swedes led the exodus, largely following their country’s hardline stance towards Russian aggression.

But after the initial flow, some vacancies in Europe are being filled by American and Canadian players. They include Scott Wilson, a Canadian who won the NHL championship 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 top men’s basketball league, up from 30 a few months ago, according to US sports agents. An analysis of the team list shows that an additional 29 American and Canadian hockey players have signed with Russia’s top teams this season, with some joining in the wake of Ukraine’s invasion of Ukraine. Russia. There was even an American who played for the Russian women’s basketball team that Griner represented before her arrest.

These athletes stayed despite warnings from the State Department, advising all Americans to leave Russia immediately, weighing the risks of competing in Russia against the professional and financial opportunities in Russia. a large sports market.

Various agents representing American athletes did not respond to questions about Griner’s detention in Russia. Those who have said the prisoner exchange that brought her home has no effect on their work or clients.

“The Griner case involves things that have nothing to do with basketball,” said David Carro, a Spanish sports agent who represents four American men’s basketball players in Russia. “We never had a problem when Brittney Griner was there, and now, even worse.”

He added: “Our Americans are paid quickly and are living very well in Russia.

Many American basketball players go to Russia to earn money during the season or to extend their careers. Because Russia covets “famous” players, they often pay high salaries. Athletes can earn more than $1 million and often get free housing and cars.

Neff, who represents about 30 professional basketball players, said Griner’s freedom did not make him any less cautious about sending players to Russia during the conflict with Ukraine. He has discouraged his clients from going there and there are currently no 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 amount worth the risk? That is the choice you are making.”

American basketball player KC Rivers, 35, arrived in Russia in August while Griner was on probation to play for Samara, a provincial capital more than 500 miles east of Moscow.

“At this point, I really don’t have that many options,” Mr. Rivers said in an interview in September. “What is the best thing for me right now, towards — I wouldn’t say the end of my career — but in my career at this point? Financially, what makes sense?”

Neff said Russian basketball clubs are playing fewer games this season because of their suspension from the Euroleague, a penalty that has reduced the quality of the players the league has attracted, he said. Neff said. And Russia’s hockey federation voted this month to cut the number of foreigners that will be allowed on each team starting next season, an example of the wartime nationalism spreading across the country. country.

There are still a handful of Americans imprisoned in Russia. One was Paul Whelan, who was detained in December 2018, convicted of espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison; The US State Department said he was wrongly 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, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin commented on the possibility of a new prisoner exchange with the United States.

“Anything is possible and contacts continue through special services,” he said at a press conference.

George Beebe, former CIA director of Russia analysis and a Russia adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, said that while there are risks to Americans in Russia, he doesn’t think the Bout-swap- Griner increased the likelihood of an American being arrested. on fabricated pretexts.

“For American citizens living and working in Russia, I’m not saying there’s no danger,” Beebe, program director at the Quincy Institute, said in a phone interview. “Certainly yes. The Russian government seems to have no tolerance at all in dealing with the Americans. They will not give any American the benefit of the doubt.”

However, he said, “I don’t think it increases the likelihood that the Russian government will arrest Americans.”

Andrei A. Soldatov, a Russian journalist specializing in security services, said it was difficult to make predictions as the rules of the game kept changing. During the Cold War, he said, the rules were defined and predictable. But with the war in Ukraine continuing to escalate, diplomacy is entering uncharted territory.

“We all tend to like to compare this to the Cold War, but this is not the case,” he said in a phone interview.

“The Cold War was a time when no one wanted or really cared about a hot war. And now we have a really big fight that could get bigger,” he said. “Nobody can really rationalize or predict and develop a suitable strategy — that’s a problem.”

Valerie Hopkins reports from Moscow, Anatoly Kurmanaev from Berlin and Jonathan Abrams from Charlotte, N.C Matthew Anderson contribution reports from Berlin, and Milana Mazaeva from Washington.


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