WASHINGTON — Americans Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan could be released from their Russian prison cells by the end of this year, former US Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson said Sunday following a visit to Moscow last month.
“I am cautiously optimistic on the Greiner-Wheeler negotiations,” Richardson told CNN’s “State of the Union,” misnaming the former US Marine serving time as an accused spy. “I am cautiously optimistic. I think it’s going to be a two-for-two deal.”
Richardson added that while in Moscow, he had met with “senior Russian officials, individuals close to President [Vladimir] Putin.”
“I got the sense that the Russian officials that I met with, that I’ve known over the years, are ready to talk,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “I got a good sense from the Russians — the vibrations — but I’m not a government official.”
“You say you’re optimistic. Do you think that you can get Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan out by the end of the year, say?” Tapper asked at one point.
“I do think so,” answered Richardson, who later cautioned that he was “just giving you my assessment after two visits to Russia on behalf of American hostages.”
Griner, an eight-time all-star center for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and two-time Olympic gold medalist, was sentenced to nine years in Russian prison Aug. 6 after pleading guilty to drug possession after police found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage Feb. 17 at a Moscow airport.
Though Griner has a court date set for Oct. 25 to appeal her sentence, Russian officials like Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have said they are open to a prospective prisoner swap.
Whelan, who holds American, British, Canadian and Irish citizenship, has been serving a 16-year sentence after being convicted of espionage, a charge he denies.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in July that the Biden administration had made a “substantial proposal” in a bid to get Griner and Whelan home. While he did not elaborate on the offer, reports indicated at the time that Washington had offered to release notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for the Americans.
Bout is serving a 25-year sentence in the US and has been dubbed “The Merchant of Death.” His potential release would come at a critical point as Russia has been struggling to keep its military equipped nearly eight months into its war on Ukraine.
Richardson did not identify any other Russians who could be released as part of a prospective trade.
Richardson has helped secure the release of American detainees before, including the April springing of Marine veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was serving a lengthy sentence in America on cocaine-trafficking charges.
The Biden administration has publicly distanced itself from Richardson’s efforts, with National Security Council spokesman John Kirby saying last month that “private citizens should not be in Moscow at all right now.”
“Look, we share Mr. Richardson’s desire to see Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan home with their families and her teammates, where she belongs and where he belongs,” Kirby told CNN Sept. 14. “And we’re working very, very hard at doing that through government channels. That’s the appropriate way to do that.”
However, the former New Mexico governor told CNN Sunday he has “coordinated as much as he can” with the White House.
“I don’t work for them. And I think that little misunderstanding has been cleared up. But there are a lot of nervous Nellies in the government that think they could know it all, and that’s not the case,” said Richardson, later adding: “So, I’m going to continue these efforts.”