WASHINGTON — Former NBA player Dennis Rodman said Saturday that he plans to visit Russia to seek the release of Brittney Griner, the WNBA star who was sentenced to nine years in prison on drug charges earlier this month.
"I got permission to go to Russia to help that girl," Rodman told NBC News at a restaurant in D.C. "I'm trying to go this week."
He is more likely to hurt than help, said a senior Biden administration official.
“It’s public information that the administration has made a significant offer to the Russians and anything other than negotiating further through the established channel is likely to complicate and hinder release efforts,” said the official.
If Rodman goes to Russia, it won't be the first time he has conducted informal diplomacy with an international leader who has strained relations with the U.S.
Rodman has cultivated a relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over the past decade, making multiple visits to the hermit kingdom. He called Russian President Vladimir Putin "cool" after a 2014 trip to Moscow. In 2018, he showed up on the sidelines of former President Donald Trump's meeting with Kim in Singapore. And he has credited himself with helping to secure the release of American Kenneth Bae from North Korea.
The U.S. has imposed stiff sanctions on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine and is aiding Ukraine’s forces. Griner's imprisonment has created an additional source of tension between the two countries — and a potential avenue for diplomacy.
Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who has been involved in past hostage negotiations, told The Associated Press this month that he was optimistic about the chances for a prisoner swap that would bring Griner and another American, Paul Whelan, back to the U.S.
The U.S. offer to Russia involved a swap of Griner and Whelan for imprisoned Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Rodman, who was in Washington for a sneaker convention, does not need special permission from the U.S. to enter Russia — just a visa from Moscow. But the State Department has issued a travel advisory that strongly discourages American citizens from visiting the country.
"Do not travel to Russia," the State Department advises, citing a litany of reasons, including the "unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine," potential "harassment against U.S. citizens by Russian government security officials" and the possibility of "wrongful detention."
Though he has a much more established relationship with Kim, Rodman expressed confidence in his understanding of Russia's president.
"I know Putin too well," he said.