Bill Richardson, the former governor and diplomat, expressed confidence on Sunday that American basketball star Brittney Griner will be released from Russian custody before the end of the year.
In an interview on CNN, Richardson said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the release of both Griner and Paul Whelan, a U.S. citizen who has been held in Russian prison since 2018 on espionage charges.
“I do think so. Now, I hate making predictions, but yes,” Richardson said when asked whether the two Americans will be released before the end of 2022.
Richardson, who previously served as governor of New Mexico and as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has extensive experience negotiating on behalf of families of hostages and detainees.
“I know (the families are) very emotional and this is a very emotional time. All I can say is that the Biden administration is working hard on it,” Richardson said Sunday on CNN. “So am I. We coordinate, but not always agree on every tactical decision. But I’m not going to interfere in their process. I’m just giving you my assessment after two visits to Russia on behalf of American hostages.”
Griner, a star for the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA, has been held in a Russian prison since February after being arrested in a Moscow airport on drug charges (officials found cannabis oil in her luggage).
In August, Griner was found guilty and sentenced to nine years in prison by a Russian court.
She plans to appeal the conviction, and a hearing has been set for October 25.
The U.S. considers both Griner and Whelan to be “wrongfully detained.” The Biden administration has negotiated a prisoner swap with Moscow, with the U.S. offering to release Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States, in exchange for the release of Griner and Whelan.
Russia has reportedly rejected that offer.
On Sunday, Richardson suggested that the Russians could be amenable to a deal.
“I got the sense that the Russian officials that I met with, that I’ve known over the years, are ready to talk,” Richardson said on CNN. “I got a good sense from the Russians – the vibrations – but I’m not a government official.”
“I’m not part of the government, the government channel. I’ve always made that clear. I respect that. I think any decision, for instance, a release, a prisoner exchange, has to be made by the President. And I think the administration has done a good job on that,” Richardson added.
President Joe Biden met with the families of both Griner and Whelan last month.
“He wanted to let them know that they remain front of mind and that his team is working on this every day, on making sure that Brittney and Paul return home safely,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at the time.
Biden sharply condemned Russia following Griner’s conviction in August.
“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 his statement at the time.
“It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates.”
“My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible,” he added.