How Sarah Krivanek Differs from Brittney Griner — and What It Means to Be ‘Wrongfully Detained’ in Russia

By Aaron Parsley

Counterterrorism and intelligence expert Chris Costa tells PEOPLE he’s “absolutely confident” the U.S. is taking a very close look at the case of a lesser-known American schoolteacher jailed in Russia

Sarah Krivanek, Brittney Griner
Sarah Krivanek and Brittney Griner, two Americans jailed in Russia. PHOTO: FACEBOOK; KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP VIA GETTY

In response to the nine-year sentence Brittney Griner received Thursday following her trial in Russia for drug smuggling, U.S. President Joe Biden spoke out about the WNBA star’s devastating circumstances.

“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 statement. “It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately.”

In saying that Griner is wrongfully detained, the president is alluding to an assessment that is likely underway for another American woman jailed in Russia, Sarah Krivanek, according to Chris Costa, a 34-year veteran of the Department of Defense and former U.S. Army Intelligence officer who is now the executive director of the International Spy Museum.

PEOPLE spoke with Costa Friday to get insight into Krivanek’s case. As special assistant to the president and senior director for counterterrorism in Donald Trump’s White House, Costa worked on cases of Americans that were wrongfully detained overseas. Since leaving his job in government, Costa’s work with the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation and Hostage US includes tracking wrongful detention cases around the world.

Chris Costa


Despite the lack of attention paid to Krivanek — who was arrested in Moscow Dec. 15, 2021, when she tried to board a plane to leave Russia amid pending charges connected to a domestic violence incident — Costa is “absolutely confident” that the U.S. is looking closely at her case.

“I believe the U.S. government doing its due diligence. They are always assessing cases for wrongful detention,” he says, adding that Americans imprisoned in Russia are of particular interest right now.

“Sarah’s family could be optimistic that the United States is really redoubling,” Costa adds. “We are committed to taking care of U.S. citizens held abroad wrongfully.”

Indeed, a State Department official confirmed the arrest of a U.S. citizen in Russia on Dec. 15 and told PEOPLE, “We take our role in assisting U.S. citizens abroad seriously and are monitoring the situation.”

Determining whether Krivanek is wrongfully detained is based on criteria laid out in the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, which was passed in 2020 to shore up resources to help bring American hostages and wrongfully detainees home.

Krivanek was charged with “intention to inflict slight bodily harm” and “threatening to kill or do grievous bodily harm” in Russia after a Nov. 11, 2021, altercation with Mikhail Karavaev. In court, she alleged Karavaev was abusive and that she was defending herself when she wielded a kitchen knife and cut his nose. Karavaev later withdrew his complaint against Krivanek and later told the Russian court, “I was the one at fault.”

Despite his admission and her defense, Krivanek is currently serving a one year and three month sentence at a penal colony in Ryazan, a city about 120 miles southeast of Moscow, PEOPLE learned this week.

Costa is adamant that Krivanek appears to be a victim of domestic violence — but also of “a flawed justice system.”

“It’s the Russian justice system,” he says, “and the United States just generally has to be really careful that we can’t intercede in other nations’ legal systems, unless, and this is key, unless it meets criteria that’s laid out in the Levinson Act.”


Sarah Krivanek


Although Costa isn’t privy to the likely ongoing assessment of Krivanek’s detention, he says she does not appear to be “considered by the United States, as far as I know, as being wrongfully detained.”

He notes that her status “does not mean that the United States is not working on ensuring that she has all of what is entitled by a U.S. citizen in terms of Consular support.”

“She is a victim, but she might not be a wrongfully detained, that’s a category,” Costa adds. “She was defending herself, but that doesn’t mean she’s wrongfully detained in accordance with Russian law.”

He also emphasized that a determination of whether a prisoner is wrongfully detained based on the Levinson Act is likely ongoing and could certainly change over time.

“It’s an analytical judgment based on the facts of the case. But it’s kind of a sliding ruler based on the situation. It’s dynamic, too, because new facts can come to light and political environments can be revealed,” he says.

After her November 2021 arrest, Krivanek sought help from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and was given a repatriation loan to cover travel expenses and an escort to the airport, where she was apprehended by Russian authorities on Dec. 15, 2021.

As of two months later, she was apparently not aware of any efforts made by the embassy to assist her. In a letter dated Feb. 7, 2022, which she sent from a Moscow detention center, Krivanek wrote to an unnamed contact: “to this date no one from the American Embassy has come to see me.”

Costa tells PEOPLE that might not be because no one at the embassy tried.

“It sounds suspicious to me, and I would say the fault would lie with the Russians,” he says. “Maybe she was prohibited from making the obligatory phone calls that we’re used to in the United States. That might not be an opportunity that a local jailer allowed her.”

“The idea of consular services not seeing an American who is being detained, that sounds suspect and unusual to me,” he adds. He says he’s left scratching his head, “because I know that the State Department would make a prison visit or jail visit a priority.”

In correspondence with PEOPLE this week, a State Department official said, “We continue to urge that Russian authorities allow consistent, timely consular access to all U.S. citizen detainees in Russia in line with its legal obligations and allow us to provide consular services for U.S. citizens detained in Russia. Our requests for access are consistently delayed or denied.”

“We also continue to press for fair and transparent treatment for all U.S. citizen detainees in Russia,” the official added.

Sarah Krivanek


According to the Levinson Act, an American citizen can be deemed “detained unlawfully or wrongfully” for several reasons. One is if the “individual is being detained solely or substantially to influence United States Government policy or to secure economic or political concessions from the United States.”

Griner, who is now the subject of discussions on a prisoner swap between the U.S. and Russia, may fall into that category in part, Costa said, because of the notoriety she has as a famous basketball player with countless supporters — including President Biden — speaking out on her behalf.

“People came out to speak about it right away to show their solidarity for her,” Costa said of Griner. “So, that in itself raises the stakes for Russia. Okay, there’s interest, a lot of interest in Brittney Griner, therefore they want to exact some kind of political advantage.”

Krivanek, on the other hand, hasn’t had that support and could be considered less valuable to the Russians, which might be why her detention isn’t considered wrongful based on the Levinson Act.

“Perhaps the United States government will look very, very hard at this particular case and ultimately declare her wrongfully detained,” Costa said. “But that is a call that the U.S. government, the State Department, would have to make.”

In the meantime, Costa added, “Just because Sarah [Krivanek] is not declared wrongfully detained, meeting the criteria of the Levinson Act, that does not mean that day in and day out, that the Consular Affairs in Russia are not working on her case.”

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