By Tyler Clifford
NEW YORK (Reuters) – WNBA star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who are being held in Russia, could gain release by the end of this year, said former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson, who traveled to Moscow in September.
Richardson told CNN in an interview on Sunday that he had met with senior Russian officials and individuals close to Russian President Vladimir Putin during his trip, though his visit was not on behalf of the United States.
“I am cautiously optimistic on the Griner (and) Whelan negotiations,” said Richardson, who is also former governor of New Mexico and who has worked privately to secure the release of American detainees abroad.
Richardson added that he thought an exchange of detainees would include two Russians in exchange for the two Americans. He did not identify the Russians or give an exact time frame.
Asked if the two Americans might be released by the end of the year, he said: “I do think so. Now, I hate making predictions, but yes.”
U.S. citizen Griner, a two-time Olympic basketball gold medalist, was sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison on Aug. 4 after pleading guilty to drug charges. She insisted she inadvertently broke the law when she traveled with vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.
Whelan, who holds American, British, Canadian and Irish passports, was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in jail after being convicted of spying. He denied the charge.
The United States said in late July that it had put forward a “substantial offer” to secure the release of the two Americans. Sources familiar with the situation said Washington has offered to exchange Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout for Griner and Whelan.
Reports have surfaced that Moscow has sought the release of a second Russian, but Washington has not confirmed further details on its exact offer.
Negotiations are taking place amid ruptured relations between the two countries after Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, which has sparked a U.S.-led effort to punish Moscow with sanctions and isolate it diplomatically.
The White House said last week that it has yet to receive a “serious counter-offer.”
Richardson said he sensed from the Russian officials with whom he had met that Moscow was “ready to talk.” He did not identify the officials.
The Biden administration has distanced itself from Richardson’s trip and efforts in Russia, with senior U.S. officials in recent weeks saying private citizens cannot negotiate on behalf of the U.S. government.
Richardson on Sunday said he had coordinated his work with the White House and noted his previous efforts, including attempts to gain the release of U.S. journalist Danny Fenster, who was detained in Myanmar and released last year.
(Reporting by Tyler Clifford in New York; Editing by Humeyra Pamuk and Matthew Lewis)