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Can Bill Richardson Get U.S. Prisoners in Russia Back Home?

Russian President Putin During the meeting on developing genetic technologies in the Russian Federation (via videoconference).

Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson said he is “cautiously optimistic” about a deal to release two Americans being held prisoner in Russia: Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.

“Mr. Richardson – who has been unofficial negotiating with Russian officials as a private citizen – told CNN’s ‘State of the Union’ that a deal could be feasible by the end of the year, saying that Russia appeared to be willing to move forward on an agreement to exchange Ms. Griner, a W.N.B.A. all-star, and Mr. Whelan, a former Marine, for two Russian prisoners held by the United States,” Zach Montague reported for the New York Times.

“I got the sense that the Russian officials that I met with, that I’ve known over the years, are ready to tak,” Richardson said. “I got a good sense from the Russians – the vibrations – but I’m not a government official.” 

Richardson’s History of Negotiations

Richardson has a history of securing U.S. prisoner releases from countries like Iran, North Korea, and Sudan. His efforts have not always been well received. His “unofficial diplomacy has put him at odds with the Biden administration as relations between Washington and Moscow have deteriorated over Russia’s aggression in Ukraine,” Montague reported. Richardson was also criticized for visiting with members of Myanmar’s military junta last year. Human rights advocates believe such visits lend legitimacy to authoritarian governments. 

John Kirby, former press secretary for the Pentagon, “implored Mr. Richardson and other private citizens not to negotiate on behalf of the U.S. government.”

“I respect that,” Richardson responded. “I think any decision, for instance, release of prisoner exchange, has to be made by the president.” However, “there are a lot of nervous Nellies in the government that think they can know it all, and that’s not the case. Look at my track record over 30 years – I’m going to continue these efforts.”

Speaking specifically about coordination with the Biden administration over Griner and Whelan, Richardson said, “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. So am I. We coordinate, but do 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.”

Harsh Sentences

Griner was sentenced last August to nine years of penal labor for what Russia calls “drug smuggling.” The basketball star – a two-time Olympic gold medalist – was arrested at Moscow’s airport last February for allegedly trying to “smuggle” less than 1 gram of cannabis oil in her luggage. She said she had packed the item accidentally while she was in a hurry. By American standards, the charges are draconian. 

Whelan was detained in late 2018 at a Moscow hotel and arrested for espionage. Whelan denies the charges, but he was convicted in June 2020 and given a 16-year prison sentence.

In America, Griner’s celebrity has led to increased media coverage relative to Paul Whelan. Social justice advocates, responding to a compulsive need to analyze everything through a racial filter, have argued that the U.S. government is neglecting Griner because she is a black woman, and that if she were not, the government would have dropped everything to free her by now. The argument is absurd of course. Paul Whelan is a white male who has been imprisoned in Russia years longer than Griner while receiving a fraction of the media coverage. Regardless, the media coverage, and the social/racial justice arguments attached to Griner’s release advocacy have put increased pressure on the Biden administration, and this might accelerate the prisoner exchange process. 

Hopefully Griner and Whelan are home by the end of the year. 

Harrison Kass is the Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken. Follow him on Twitter @harrison_kass. 

Written By

Harrison Kass is a Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison has degrees from Lake Forest College, the University of Oregon School of Law, and New York University’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. He lives in Oregon and regularly listens to Dokken.



  1. Dr. Scooter Van Neuter

    October 11, 2022 at 12:04 pm

    He’s welcome to leave Griner there – our country is the better for it.

  2. Lindsey Reed

    October 24, 2022 at 4:46 am

    Brittany thought the airport security would not check her baggage coming in. That is usually the case for Sheremetevo (Moscow) airport, you just walk right in. However, the provincial airports sometimes DO check when coming in, and since earlier this year, Moscow does, too. Russia was prepping for increased security just prior to Moscow’s formal entry into the NATO/Kiev ongoing war (since 2014) in Donbass.

    Once landed in a Russian regional airport from Frankfurt, flying Lufthansa. At customs I made the mistake of saying I was going to open a business, but the visa said I was a tourist. Me, another American going to meet his Russian penpal and 3 Russian ladies were denied entry, and we were sent on the next Lufthansa flight, back to Frankfurt.

    The Russian ladies booked a flight to Moscow and I copied their example. I helped the other American get started on spending his vacation in Germany (I speak German), he did not want to retry going to Russia (he thought his penpal was probably a scammer anyway). Arriving in Moscow later that day, we went through customs then claimed our baggage, no problem.

    But those entry/exit protocols are different now.

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