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Can Bill Richardson Free Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan?

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WASHINGTON — Days before Russia invaded Ukraine, Paula and Joey Reed lost hope of seeing their son Trevor released from a Russian prison. Then the aide called Bill Richardson.

Richardson, a former New Mexico politician known for making deals with foreign magnates to free American prisoners, traveled to Moscow to negotiate Trevor’s release, the aide said. was heading for

“I said, what about the State Department?” Joey Reed recalled in an interview. Aide Mickey Bergman replied that the agency’s attitude, according to Reid, was to “stop this” and that the trip was “basically a guerrilla operation.”

Two months later, former US Marine Trevor Reed was released. He was released on April 27 in a prisoner swap between the Kremlin and the Biden administration after serving more than two years in prison for allegedly assaulting two police officers.

“If Richardson hadn’t been involved, Trevor would still be there,” Reed said.

But I can’t say if that is true. U.S. officials never acknowledged that Richardson played a key role in his release, instead describing urgent work to free Reed when his health began to deteriorate. The Biden administration has welcomed his help as Richardson sought to win the release of imprisoned Americans Britney Griner and Paul Whelan after returning to Moscow in September. I signaled that it would not be done.

“Our concern is that private individuals seeking to broker transactions cannot and cannot speak for the U.S. government,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a Sept. 14 briefing. He warned that freelance diplomacy would “likely hinder” efforts to free Griner and Whelan. He said Richardson’s trip had not been coordinated with the US Embassy in Moscow.

Asked about Richardson later that day, National Security Council spokesman John F. Kirby told CNN, “Civilians shouldn’t be in Moscow right now.”

In an interview, Richardson said he was still working on the lawsuit and was trying to downplay any disagreements.

“There can be friction and tension in hostage relations between government and private initiatives,” he said. “In the Whelan-Griner case, we are working together and coordinating our efforts.”

“But my primary responsibility is to the American hostages and their families, not to the government,” he added.

For decades in politics and as a private citizen, Mr. Richardson has specialized in helping win the release of Americans detained abroad, working in danger zones such as North Korea and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. He has gone and done miracles that the US government alone could not have done.

Now, the families of Whelan and Griner hope Richardson can serve time again after appealing a nine-year prison sentence for drug smuggling, which was rejected by a Russian court last week.

But some people who have worked with Mr. Richardson or who have closely followed his efforts are uneasy. They describe him as a rogue propaganda hound who risks complicating the Biden administration’s delicate negotiations with Russia, and may even end up in the hands of the Kremlin.

The Biden administration’s warning against Richardson’s efforts follows other controversies in recent years over his role in prisoner exchanges, reflecting the pressure of deals with foreign governments that turn American prisoners into bargaining chips. There is

Daniel Gilbert, an expert on prisoner negotiations at Dartmouth College’s Dickie Center for International Understanding, said the involvement of outsiders like Richardson “has both obvious benefits and real risks.” rice field. Gilbert praised Richardson’s past successes and said he could play a valuable role by meeting with villainous actors to brainstorm ideas to keep American officials off-limits. rice field.

She said freelance diplomats could be working beyond purpose with the U.S. government and “jeopardize the deal.”

The 74-year-old Richardson was known for his unpretentious style and self-promotional skills during his long political career.

After eight years as governor of New Mexico and an unsuccessful 2008 Democratic presidential run, President Obama’s nomination for secretary of commerce was withdrawn, prompting a federal investigation into the state’s contracts during his tenure as governor. ‘s career as a politician was over. I dropped the case.

Prior to that, he served as a New Mexico legislator, energy secretary, and UN ambassador under President Bill Clinton. As a young member of the House Intelligence Committee in the 1980s, he developed a knack for covert back-channel diplomacy and Mr. Clinton sent him on classified missions to places such as Iraq, North Korea, Afghanistan and Sudan.

Mr. Richardson once wrote a book titled How to Sweet Talk to Sharks and shares the following maxim: Try to connect privately. Use your sense of humor. Let the other side save your face.

Today, he runs the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, which he says “promotes peace and dialogue in the world.” Based in his building in Santa Fe, the center has only two full-time employees. Mr. Richardson and Mr. Bergman, a former Israeli Defense Forces paratrooper who specializes in what he calls “periphery diplomacy.”

Richardson says the prisoner’s family did not pay him. Although he never says he works for the U.S. government, he continues to describe his efforts to U.S. officials.

He is currently assisting several Americans held in Russian custody, along with American prisoners of war held by the Russians in eastern Ukraine. Griner, a WNBA star who was arrested when authorities discovered hash oil in her luggage at an airport in London, and Whelan, a security consultant who was arrested and convicted at a Moscow hotel in December 2018. is. espionage activity.

The State Department deems them “wrongfully detained” and is holding them hostage. Amid mounting pressure to take action, the Biden administration announced in June that it would trade Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving a lengthy federal prison sentence, for Griner and Whelan. Proposed. Russia has not officially responded.

Richardson did not give his contact information, but he often points out that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov was his counterpart during his tenure as US ambassador to the UN.

Richardson contacted Lavrov about his son’s affair, and Russian diplomats referred Richardson to a “wealthy third party,” according to Paula Reid.

After Trevor Reed’s release in April, Richardson publicly thanked a man named Ara Abramian in exchange for the release of a Russian pilot who was convicted in a US court of drug smuggling.

An Armenian businessman living in Moscow, Mr. Abramyan boasts a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who awarded him Russia’s prestigious Order of Merit for the Fatherland.

In 2015, Mr. Abramyan said, “Putin gives orders and I carry them out.”

While U.S. officials have been eagerly tight-lipped about the possibility of Griner and Whelan’s release, Richardson is happy to foresee.

“I am cautiously positive about my prediction that we will be able to reach a deal to bring Britney Griner and Paul Whelan back home before the end of the year. I have an opportunity.”

He warned “nevertheless, there will be some difficulties along the way,” but said “the White House strategy is sound and pragmatic.” He said he expects a 2″ swap.

However, U.S. officials have not set a timeline for such a deal, and in 2011, Biden announced a known offer to return Mr. Bout, who was convicted of conspiring to murder an American in federal court. There is also no evidence that the administration intends to moderate.

There is evidence that Moscow welcomes Richardson’s role. On July 8, Russia’s state news agency TASS quoted the country’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey A. Ryabkov as saying, “The zeal of such a respected person to help his fellow countrymen is commendable.” Stated.

In an interview with CNN, Richardson was less political about his interactions with Biden administration officials.

“There are a lot of nervous Nellys in the government who think they know everything, but they don’t,” he said. “Look at my 30+ year track record.”

Conflicts with U.S. officials have been a recurring theme in Richardson’s work in recent years.

During the Trump administration, Mr. Richardson tussled with officials over his tactics and achievements in releasing Xyue Wang, an American graduate student imprisoned in Tehran.

When Richardson chartered American journalist Danny Fenster back from Myanmar last November, Roger Carstens, the special envoy for hostage affairs in the Biden administration, said he “secured his release.” Thank you.

“Sometimes it takes an unconventional approach and it shouldn’t be the government,” Carstens added.

But Rolling Stone magazine recently wrote A White House press secretary corrected Carstens’ account of the incident, saying, “The government has secured Fenster’s release.”

The White House declined to comment on the matter.

After releasing seven Americans last month after President Biden authorized a prisoner exchange with Venezuela, the Richardson Center issued a statement I cite Mr. Richardson’s many efforts on their behalf.

However, in a briefing to the press giving details of his release, senior government officials did not mention Mr Richardson at all, but only the president of the United States can grant a pardon and therefore negotiate a prisoner exchange. said only the U.S. government.

Similarly, US officials have not explained that Richardson was key to Trevor Reed’s release.

In an email to supporters in July, Paul Whelan’s brother, David, said his family contacted Richardson in early 2019 about how to help Paul “when we were at sea.” However, he acknowledged the limitations of freelance negotiators who may not be able to negotiate on behalf of the U.S. government and may be unaware of official efforts.

“This means they can both help or hinder the possible resolution of detainees’ cases,” Whelan added.

Paula Reed credits Richardson for helping.

When Richardson flew to Moscow in February, on a private jet borrowed from FedEx founder Fred Smith, an intermediary told Mr Putin that Read had been imprisoned with Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko. She said she was told that she had personally approved the exchange. .

At a meeting in the Oval Office on March 30, Paula and Joey Reid said they told Biden they were aware of Putin’s offer. That made it nearly impossible for Mr. Biden not to act, he said.

Richardson’s visit to Moscow was “important,” said Paula Reade. “We could go in there and say, ‘I know the deal is on the table,’ and go.”

However, US officials have not indicated that the meeting was definitive. Experts also point out that Mr. Biden approved the exchange with other American prisoners without meeting his family.

Paula Reed believes Richardson deserves more recognition from the Biden administration. But she understands the frustration.

“Bill Richardson inserting himself and crediting the return of these hostages is a kind of negative deal for U.S. authorities,” she said. That’s it. ‘Hey, thank you, I appreciate it.'”

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