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Negotiators work to free 2 Americans the U.S. says are wrongfully detained in Russia

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Negotiators are trying to free two Americans that the State Department believes are wrongfully detained in Russia. WNBA star Brittney Griner was sentenced last week to nine years in prison on drug charges. And a little over two years ago, former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan was accused of being a spy and sent to jail to serve a 16-year sentence. The State Department has proposed a prisoner swap. And former U.N. ambassador and former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson joins us now. Governor Richardson, you have a history of helping negotiate freedom for Americans, and I've heard that you describe yourself as a catalyst on the Brittney Griner case. What does a catalyst mean here?

BILL RICHARDSON: It means that I'm not trying to replace the government. I have a private humanitarian foundation that works on behalf of the families. We don't take orders from the government. But with my experience, my contacts, past hostage negotiations, I try to be helpful. But I'm not the main agent. But I have in this case spoken to the White House, to the Russians, try to bring people together, navigate some kind of compromise. But I don't want to exacerbate my role. But there have been instances where directly I've been able - like in Burma with Danny Fenster, an American journalist - get them out without a prisoner exchange.

MARTINEZ: So are you authorized to make any offers or involve any names in a swap, say? Is that something you're allowed to do here?

RICHARDSON: No, no, no. No, that's the government function. But I can float names. For instance, with Trevor Reed, an American Marine released from Russia about two months ago, I had been working on, in the previous administration, a deal for a man named Yaroshenko, a Russian detained in an American prison, and that ended up being the deal. But it has to be authorized by the administration. The president had to be involved. And I commend this administration for using prisoner exchanges, as unseemly as they are, because the main objective is to try to bring American hostages home, almost at any cost.

MARTINEZ: And in this case, Russia says it is open to a prisoner swap, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that a substantial offer was made in June - would not say who, though. Can you confirm, governor, that it is Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout who's being considered?

RICHARDSON: No, I can't confirm it. But I think if it's through enough government discussions with members of the press, like you guys, it is probably the case. And Bout is a notorious arms dealer. But we get in return an American basketball star, an icon, an African American woman, and an American Marine, who both have been wrongfully detained. Both deserve to come home. And I'm optimistic, relatively optimistic, for several reasons that they'll come home.

MARTINEZ: Would that be a lopsided yet necessary trade if it winds up being an athlete and a Marine for an arms dealer?

RICHARDSON: I would think it's going to end up being - this is my prediction - a two-for-two. I think the Russians will want more. And I believe that some kind of arrangement might make sense. Why? I think the Russians and the Americans have done a prisoner swap before despite terrible relations. Two, I think the fact that Foreign Minister Lavrov, who I served with at the U.N., is one of the negotiators - he's a practical person. He's pragmatic. And then the third reason, I think this Brittney Griner - her legal team has done a good job of contrition, of lowballing the entire episode. So I see the possibility of - not instantaneous but something gradual, government to government. And hopefully I can help. But I can't discuss what I've been doing.

MARTINEZ: One thing, though, governor, it just feels like it's been stuck in neutral. What would be holding things up right now? Brittney Griner has gone through her case. She was found guilty. That's over with. So what would be holding things up right now?

RICHARDSON: Well, that's a positive sign. I hate to say that because it means the Russians can say our court system is concluded, so now we can negotiate. The sentence was unfair. And - but now is the time that governments can negotiate. Commutations can take place. Prisoner exchanges can take place. And prisoner exchanges are unseemly, but sometimes you have to do them in order to bring American hostages home.

MARTINEZ: Former U.N. ambassador and former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. Governor, thanks.

RICHARDSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.