Russian media plays international victim card after Griner sentenced

Gregory Svirnovskiy
Arizona Republic

Russian state media has taken on an aggrieved tone after American basketball star Brittney Griner was sentenced to 9 years in prison on trumped-up charges of drug smuggling.

Russian media outlets complained about several perceived double standards in the way that the West has treated the story, reflecting how the Russian government is approaching Griner's case.

On the popular social media app Telegram, the Russian Embassy in the United States charged the U.S. government of a “distortion of facts and information.”  

The news site URA.ru detailed the embassy's apparent frustration. Officials called the less-authoritarian U.S. drug policy “an internal matter.” The fact that the U.S. has legalized marijuana does "not automatically apply to other sovereign countries," the embassy said 

A screenshot of Russia outlet URA News' coverage of negotiations surrounding a potential prisoner swap of American basketball player Brittney Griner

On the day of the Phoenix Mercury star's sentencing, President Joe Biden condemned Griner's sentence and reaffirmed his administration's pledge to bring her and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan back from Russia, where the U.S. government maintains they are being illegally held. 

“Today, American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney,” Biden said in a written statement. “It's unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates.” 

And Griner's teammates on the Phoenix Mercury held a 42-second moment of silence in her honor ahead of a home game against the Connecticut Sun. By the end, calls of “BG” and “Bring Her Home” cascaded through the arena. 

It's a public spectacle that has angered Russian authorities, who have aimed to conduct prisoner swap negotiations outside of public scrutiny. The Biden administration, in contrast, has pulled out the megaphone.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. In a “frank” conversation, Blinken said he pressed Lavrov to accept the United States' “substantial proposal” to swap convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout for Griner and Whelan. With Griner sentenced, the Russian government has shown more public willingness to talk about a deal, but only in the proper channels. 

“There is a special channel, agreed by two Presidents, and whatever anyone says in public, this channel maintains its importance,” Lavrov said according to the Russian news site ria.ru.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in media organization Lenta.ru

Russia media claims double standards in Griner debate

“Its own drug smuggling, the United States prosecutes much tougher,” blared an headline in the news site Aргументы и факты. That article cited former NBA player Iman Shumpert, who last weekend was arrested at a Dallas airport after trying to bring six ounces of marijuana through a security checkpoint. Shumpert, the article stated, faces a sentence of up to two years. 

The article ignored the fact that Griner, who was caught with significantly less than a single ounce of hashish oil, was handed a sentence more than four times longer than what Shumpert faces. 

Screenshot of Russian website kommersant.ru

Russian lawyer Марии Ярмуш, or Maria Yarmush, told Aргументы и факты that Biden's words amounted to simple political rhetoric. 

“In the United States, they're fighting with narcotics and trying to stop trafficking, and giving really long sentences,” she said, telling stories of two clients who had been apprehended and questioned by American authorities at airports.

Russian media also is crying foul at the number of Russian nationals held in American prisons. Since 2008, more than 50 Russians have been detained in the United States, according to the Russian Embassy.  

kommersant.ru in Russian search engine Yandex

Based on reports from diplomats in the Russian state, kommersant.ru reported, “finding themselves in the arms of the American legal system, Russian nationals experience unfair treatment. In many cases, our citizens are strongly encouraged to plead guilty. If they refuse to plead guilty, they face significant prison sentences.” 

Gregory Svirnovskiy is a Pulliam Fellow at the Arizona Republic. You can follow him on Twitter @gsvirnovskiy or reach him by email at gregory.svirnovskiy@gannett.com.