By Tyler Clifford
NEW YORK (Reuters) – WNBA star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who are being held in Russia, could be released by the end of this year, said former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson, who traveled to Moscow in September.
Richardson said in an interview with CNN on Sunday that he had met with senior Russian officials and people close to Russian President Vladimir Putin during his trip, although his visit was not on behalf of the United States.
“I’m cautiously optimistic about the Griner (and) Whelan negotiations,” said Richardson, who is also a former governor of New Mexico and has worked privately to secure the release of American prisoners overseas.
Richardson added that he believed a prisoner exchange 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 could be released before the end of the year, he said: “I think so. Now I hate to make predictions, but yes.”
American citizen Griner, a two-time Olympic basketball gold medalist, was sentenced Aug. 4 to nine years in a Russian prison after pleading guilty to drug charges. She insisted she unwittingly 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 to 16 years in prison in 2020 after being convicted of espionage. He denied the charge.
The United States said in late July that it had made a “substantial offer” to secure the release of the two Americans. Sources familiar with the situation said Washington has offered to swap Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout for Griner and Whelan.
Reports have emerged that Moscow has sought the release of another Russian, but Washington has not confirmed further details of its exact offer.
Talks are taking place amid a fractured relationship between the two countries following Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, which has sparked a US-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 counteroffer.”
Richardson said he sensed from the Russian officials he met with 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, where senior US officials have said in recent weeks that private citizens cannot negotiate on behalf of the US government.
Richardson said Sunday that he had coordinated his work with the White House, noting his previous efforts, including efforts to secure the release of American 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)