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Brittney Griner was a pawn in Putin’s relentless crusade to divide America

Putin may think he won this round with the U.S., but that doesn't mean we should.
Image: Brittney Griner wearing a jersey that reads,"USA"
Brittney Griner greeting players after an exhibition game in Las Vegas, Nevada ahead of the Tokyo Olympic Games on July 16, 2021. Ethan Miller / Getty Images file

With the news of Brittney Griner’s release from Russian imprisonment Thursday, armchair analysts and experts at using their thumbs on social media are declaring that Russian President Vladimir Putin won this round of the ongoing U.S.-Russia discord. Putin himself may certainly think he won; if nothing else, he punished the mind and body of a woman who embodies every identity he wants to suppress and eliminate from Russian life — openly gay and lesbian couples, casual or medicinal users of cannabis, women who threaten chauvinism, and Black people who challenge notions of white supremacy. And Putin gained back a prolific arms dealer, who already served the bulk of his sentence, as part of the prisoner swap that led to Griner’s release. 

Deepening America’s racial divides is part of a long-standing Soviet playbook.

But in his efforts to secure Griner’s release, President Joe Biden sent the message that the United States values something more than scoring political points through controlling and confining people’s bodies: honoring people as individuals and fighting for the rule of law on the world stage.

At the start of his war with Ukraine, and by extension his intensified conflict with the United States, Putin found in one person the intersections of American identity he needed: a Black, married lesbian woman who uses marijuana and has a large social media following to use as the latest pawn in Russia’s long-standing strategy of wielding America’s diversity to hurt us.  

Putin extracted nearly a year of Griner’s life while creating social conflict in America, as people questioned the Biden administration’s efforts and whether a white male sports star, like football player Tom Brady, would ever be imprisoned this long. Others suggested Griner "did the crime" so she should "do the time," comments that ignore unjust legal enforcement and echo the war on drugs rhetoric so commonly used against Black people in America.

Deepening America’s racial divides is part of a long-standing Soviet playbook. As historian Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, whose work focuses on Black identity in the Eastern bloc, explains, “There was heavy Soviet interest in American race relations… they were looking at Jim Crow America and they were producing propaganda showing how racist the United States was.” The “interest in African Americans as an oppressed people” and “also as oppressed workers” allowed the Soviet Union to sell its anti-capitalism narrative domestically, creating another layer to convince the Russian public they should consider America an enemy. 

The Soviets also courted Black community leaders, intellectuals and entertainers from America. In the 1930s, when half of the Black American population was out of work, writer Langston Hughes traveled to Russia; as the Red Scare was starting, world famous singer Paul Robeson made a speech in 1949 telling Black people not to take up arms against Russia; and intellectuals from W.E.B. DuBois to Angela Davis cited the influence of communist revolutions on their work. 

“Russia, though a culturally and physically distant and far less traveled destination, offered opportunities not readily available to them elsewhere,” writes historian Robert Fikes. “Black sojourners nonetheless felt acceptance and appreciated their stay in Russia which they saw as a distant refuge from the daily humiliations routinely faced in the United States.” Griner was following that same journey when she spent her off-season playing for Russian teams for nearly 10 times what she is paid in the U.S.

The Russian state is not wrong about American injustices toward Black people, but it's far from altruistic when using these issues for propaganda. We saw this clearly when Putin weaponized his knowledge about America’s class and racial divisions in the 2016 presidential campaign. What we now call the Russia Investigation revealed that Russian government operatives created thousands of fake personas online to expand and deepen debates about Black Lives Matter and white supremacy. In a strategy he calls “virtual hatred,” scholar William Aceves says Putin’s purpose “was to manipulate public opinion on racial issues and disrupt the political process.”

The Russian state is not wrong about American injustices toward Black people, but it's far from altruistic when using these issues for propaganda.

Prisoner returns are fraught negotiations conducted at the highest levels and often don’t materialize in a release. Former Marine Paul Whelan has been imprisoned in Russia for four years. This summer, the Biden administration tried to arrange a two-for-two swap to include Whelan, but ultimately the Russians dictated that only Griner’s release was up for discussion. Putin had lost credibility on the sports diplomacy front by holding hostage a star basketball player; at a time when Russia needs whatever good will it can get, getting rid of Griner and gaining back a military asset is the better deal for Russia. 

With online commentary swirling about whether Griner’s exchange was “worth it,” Putin is still pushing his tactic of leveraging America’s record of racism to his advantage, attempting to pit white veterans against Black athletes. 

Fortunately, it appears Whelan’s family is not falling for that trap, telling media, “We all really understand that Russia is trying to create dissension [by] not engaging on Paul and only engaging on Brittney on purpose.” 

Whether Putin or Biden won here is perhaps a matter of pure perspective. But while Putin reduces people by their identities, Biden pushes for the soul of our nation, making it clear that political prisoners are people first — and that people deserve the support of their governments.