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SANTA FE – While the decision to exchange women’s basketball star Brittney Griner for a convicted Russian arms dealer was made by President Joe Biden, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was involved in back channel negotiations for months preceding Griner’s release on Thursday.
The former governor, who now runs a nonprofit center that focuses on international diplomacy, said he supported Biden’s decision but remained concerned about Americans still imprisoned in Russia, including U.S. ex-Marine Paul Whelan.
“Sometimes a prisoner exchange is unseemly, unsavory and unfair, but we have to do it to bring our hostages home,” Richardson told the Journal. “I think this one was a good trade for the United States.”
Richardson, who is also a former ambassador to the United Nations, founded the Santa Fe-based Richardson Center for Global Engagement, which is focused on international peace and diplomacy efforts, after finishing up his second term as governor in 2010.
Over the years, he has also engaged in diplomatic negotiations with leaders of Myanmar, Iraq, Cuba, Sudan and other nations.
On Thursday, Richardson said he had spoken by phone with Griner’s father, Raymond Griner. He also credited Biden for reaching the deal with Russian officials that included the release of notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
The Democratic former governor also said he’s hopeful the United States could soon secure the release of other Americans held in Russia, including Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive jailed in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the U.S. government have said are baseless.
“My predication was that we would get Griner and Whelan out before the end of the year,” Richardson said in an interview. “That’s my one regret – that we didn’t get Whelan out.”
In his efforts to help broker Griner’s release, Richardson and the center’s vice president Mickey Bergman traveled to Moscow at least twice and met with Russian leaders, Russian Embassy officials in Washington, D.C., and the White House’s National Security Team, Bergman said.
In those private meetings, potential solutions were discussed to secure the releases of Griner, Whelan and several other Americans, including Grady Kurpasi, a former Marine who went missing after traveling to Ukraine to assist in the country’s efforts to repel a Russian invasion.
While Richardson’s diplomatic efforts to help secure the release of Americans held abroad have at times been downplayed by U.S. government officials, they have also been praised by the family members of some of those individuals.
In remarks Thursday at the White House, Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, specifically thanked Richardson, among others, for his work to help secure the release of the Women’s National Basketball Association player, saying, “Today my family is whole, but as you are all aware, there’s so many other families who are not whole.”
Griner, who played pro basketball in Russia, was arrested in February at an airport there after Russian authorities said she was carrying vape canisters with cannabis oil.
She was subsequently convicted and sentenced to nine years for drug smuggling. Griner had been recently transferred to a prison colony outside Moscow to serve out her sentence.
However, Griner was instead released after months of negotiations between U.S. and Russian officials that were complicated by tensions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed the swap of the two prisoners, saying in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the exchange took place in Abu Dhabi and that Bout had been flown home.
Russian media reportedly showed footage of Griner walking off a Russian plane in Abu Dhabi, where she was greeted by a U.S. official. Later, Russian television showed Bout walking off the plane on a snow-covered tarmac in Moscow, his mother and wife hugging him, giving him flowers.
Meanwhile, Richardson said Thursday he was not sure whether he would make additional trips to Russia to try to help secure the release of Whelan and others, saying, “Right now, we’re going to savor this one.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.