Bill Richardson Getty
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Former U.S. Ambassador to United Nations and New Mexico governor Bill Richardson met with Russian officials recently to help negotiate the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan. Richardson told CNN he felt "cautiously optimistic" that they could be released before the end of this year.

Griner was detained in February at Sheremetyevo International Airport after customs found hashish oil in her luggage. She was found guilty on drug charges and is currently serving a 9 1/2-year prison sentence in Russia. Whelan, detained at a Moscow hotel in December 2018, has been serving a 16-year prison sentence since 2020 for espionage charges.

Richardson works through a private humanitarian foundation, but consults with the U.S. government frequently. He did not specify whom he met with, but he said it was senior Russian officials and individuals close to President Vladimir Putin.

"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," Richardson told CNN. "So am I. We coordinate, but 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."

Richardson said that sometimes the U.S. government gets "a little nervous" about him doing negations privately, but he also pointed out his recent success in helping the release of former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed in April. Reed had been detained in Russia since 2019.

The former governor. also helped secure the release of American journalist Danny Fenster, who had been sentenced to 11 years of hard labor and spent nearly six months in jail in Myanmar.

Richardson said he believes the negotiations with Russia will involve a two-for-two swap. The name of convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout has been reported as one prisoner that could be involved, but it's not known who the other individual is.

This is not the first time Richardson speaks about his involvement in this situation. In August, he told ABC "This Week" that he didn't agree with the way the American government had made the negotiations so public, which Russian officials have complained about, but that he still felt positive about the potential outcome. In that same interview, Richardson said he felt good about what he has seen from Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, who served as a U.N. ambassador at the same time as him.

Richardson also addressed the question of whether prisoner swaps would encourage other countries to detain more Americans. He said there is "no data that supports that" and that in cases like Fenster's, sometimes it's just about a "photo-op." 

"Yes, they're increasing, especially with countries like Iran, Venezuela, Russia," Richardson told ABC regarding prisoner swaps. "But as unpleasant as they are, we have to bring American hostages home."

Click here for a full explainer on Griner's situation.