MOSCOW — After nearly 10 months of war, sanctions, nuclear threats and constant surveillance by the Russian security state, some American and European citizens continue to live and work in Russia, in many cases lured by opportunities careers and higher salaries.
Some Western athletes, businessmen and entertainers have chosen to stay even as Russian authorities arrested and jailed US basketball player Brittney Griner in February on a minor drug charge. She was freed and returned to the United States on Thursday in a prisoner exchange for notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in a move that some Republican politicians and analysts say exposes 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 or work in Russia, a decision already cumbersome with the war in Ukraine as a backdrop.
More than 1,000 multinationals have scaled back their operations in Russia since the invasion, with foreign leaders often the first to go. Most Western universities have discontinued student exchange programs with Russian peers. And most major European and American cultural institutions have ended their collaborations with Russian theaters and museums, including the Bolshoi in Moscow and the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg, two of the most famous opera and ballet houses in the world. .
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 have made Russia their home for political reasons. The best known are actor Steven Seagal and former intelligence analyst Edward Snowden, who 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 in decline went there to maintain the same level of income they were accustomed to,” said Bill Neff, an agent with clients around the world.
After the outbreak of war, Russian teams in the Continental Hockey League, which includes Russia and its neighbors, lost almost half of their foreign players. The Finns and Swedes led the exodus, largely respecting their countries’ hardline stance toward Russian aggression.
But after the initial release, some of the European vacancies are filled by American and Canadian players. Among them are Scott Wilson, a Canadian who won the NHL championship with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and an American, Alexander Chmelevski, who both joined Russian teams this fall.
There are now about 42 Americans playing or planning to play in Russia’s top men’s basketball league, up from 30 a few months ago, according to tallies by US sports agents. An analysis of team rosters shows that there are 29 other American and Canadian hockey players who signed with Russia’s top teams this season, with some joining after Russia invaded Ukraine. There is even an American who plays for the Russian women’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 for smuggling hash oil into the country.
- Anxiety turns into relief: Brittney Griner’s supporters watched with dismay as her situation seemed to worsen over the summer. Now they are celebrating his release.
- The Russian Playbook: By detaining Mrs. Griner, the Kremlin weaponized the pain to get the US to hand over a convicted arms dealer. Can the same tactic work in the war in Ukraine?
- A test for women’s sport: The exit was a win for WNBA players and fans, who pushed furiously for it. But the athlete’s plight has also shed light on gender inequalities in sport.
These athletes stayed despite warnings from the State Department, which advises all Americans to leave Russia immediately, weighing the risks of playing in Russia against the professional and financial opportunities in a major sports market.
Many agents representing American athletes did not respond to questions about Ms Griner’s detention in Russia. Those who did said the prisoner exchange that brought her home had no effect on their jobs 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 American basketball players in Russia. “We never had any problems when Brittney Griner was around, let alone now.”
“Our Americans get paid quickly and live very well in Russia,” he added.
Many American basketball players come to Russia to earn money in the offseason or to extend their careers. Because Russia covets top “named” players, they often pay high salaries. Athletes can earn over $1 million and often receive free housing and cars.
Mr. Neff, who represents about 30 professional basketball players, said Ms. Griner’s freedom has not diminished her caution in sending players to Russia during the conflict with Ukraine. He has discouraged his clients from going there and currently has no players in Russia.
“I don’t think it changes anything,” Mr Neff said of his release. “If you send someone to Russia, you know there are risks. Is the increase in money worth the risk? It’s the choice you make.
American basketball player KC Rivers, 35, came to Russia in August, while Ms Griner was on trial, to play for the team in Samara, a provincial capital more than 500 miles east of Moscow.
“At this point, I didn’t really have a lot of options open to me,” Mr. Rivers said in a September interview. “What’s the best thing for me right now, towards – I’m not going to say the end of my career – but in my career at this point? Financially, what makes sense?
Russian basketball clubs are playing fewer games this season due to their suspension from Euroleague competition, a penalty that has diminished the quality of players the league has attracted, Neff said. And the Russian hockey league voted this month to reduce the number of foreigners who will be allowed on each team from next season, an example of the wartime nationalism sweeping the country.
There are still a few Americans imprisoned in Russia. One is Paul Whelan, who was arrested in December 2018, convicted of espionage and sentenced to 16 years in a penal colony; the US State Department says he was wrongfully detained. Marc Fogel, a 60-year-old history professor, was arrested 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 further prisoner exchanges with the United States.
“Everything is possible and contacts are continuing through the special services,” he told a press conference.
George Beebe, former director of Russian analysis at the CIA and Russian adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, said that while there were risks for Americans in Russia, he did not believe the Bout- Griner had increased the chances of an American being arrested. under false pretenses.
“For American citizens living and working in Russia, I wouldn’t say there’s no danger,” Mr Beebe, program director at the Quincy Institute think tank, said in a phone interview. . “Certainly there are. The Russian government is unlikely to be at all lenient in its dealings with the Americans. They won’t give any American the benefit of the doubt. »
However, he said, “I don’t think it increases the likelihood of the Russian government arresting Americans.”
Andrei A. Soldatov, a Russian journalist specializing in security services, said it was difficult to make predictions when the rules of the game are constantly changing. In the Cold War era, he said, the rules were set and predictable. But with the war in Ukraine continuing to escalate, diplomacy is entering uncharted territory.
“We all have this temptation to always compare this to the Cold War, but it’s nothing like that,” he said in a phone interview.
“The cold war was a time when no one really wanted or was interested in a hot war. And now we have a very big war that could get worse,” he said. rationalize or predict and develop a strategy accordingly – that’s a problem.”
Valerie Hopkins reported from Moscow, Anatoly Kurmanayev from Berlin and Jonathan Abrams from Charlotte, North Carolina Matthew Anderson contributed reporting from Berlin, and Milana Mazaeva from Washington.