Over the weekend, NBA star Dennis Rodman affirmed his commitment to travel to Russia with the hopes of using his diplomatic celebrity influence to secure the release of Brittney Griner, the WNBA center who was recently sentenced to nine years in prison for violating that country’s illicit drug laws.
At the time, Rodman told NBC News, “I got permission to go to Russia to help that girl. I’m trying to go this week.”
But he has since reconsidered making the trip after heeding the warnings of the U.S. State Department.
“Do not travel to Russia due to the unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine by Russian military forces, the potential for harassment against U.S. citizens by Russian government security officials, the singling out of U.S. citizens in Russia by Russian government security officials including for detention, the arbitrary enforcement of local law, limited flights into and out of Russia, the Embassy’s limited ability to assist U.S. citizens in Russia, COVID-19-related restrictions, and terrorism. U.S. citizens residing or travelling in Russia should depart Russia immediately. Exercise increased caution due to wrongful detentions,” the official advisory reads.
State Dept. spokesman Ned Price told ABC News during a press briefing on Monday that if Rodman did travel to Russia, “He would not be traveling on behalf of the U.S. government.”
“We believe that anything other than negotiating further through the established channel is likely to complicate and hinder those release efforts,” Price added.
“We’ve also provided very clear guidance to American citizens — owing to a number of threats, not the least of which is the threat of wrongful detention — that Americans should not travel to Russia,” Price said on Monday. “That has been our message to private Americans across the board.”
Rodman can travel as an independent citizen to Russia if he so pleases as long as he secures a visa from Moscow, but whether he can garner any latitude from Russian President Vladimir Putin is another story.
Price said that U.S. interests are “best served if these discussions take place in private,” but stressed that this is “something we continue to work with the utmost urgency.”
“I said last week that we had engaged in discussions with Russian counterparts on this. Those discussions are ongoing,” Price said. “We’ve made very clear, as we have publicly, that we proposed a substantial proposal, we called it, for the release of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner.”
The U.S. classifies Griner’s imprisonment as “wrongful detention,” and have provided plenty of lip-service to the American public about negotiating her release, all of which involves a prisoner swap for Viktor Bout, the incarcerated Russian arms dealer known as the “merchant of death.”
If the NBA all-star indeed decides to travel to Russia and visits with Putin, whom he refers to as “cool,” he wouldn’t necessarily be out of his element. Rodman is known for befriending foreign leaders and claimed to have helped in the 2014 release of Christian missionary Kenneth Bae from North Korea after visiting with Kim Jong Un, whom he considers a close friend.
How far Rodman’s celebrity influence would go in Russia remains to be seen, and there is of course an argument to be made that Griner is getting exactly what she deserves, especially considering her anti-American sentiment in protesting the national anthem at WNBA games.
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