The Biden administration is distancing itself from former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s (D) visit to Russia in a bid to free detained U.S. citizens Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, reiterating that Americans should not be traveling to Moscow.
“Our message is that private citizens should not be in Moscow at all right now, and that private citizens cannot negotiate on behalf of the United States government,” John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council, said Wednesday on CNN.
“Look, we share Mr. Richardson’s desire to see Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan home with their families and her teammates, where she belongs and where he belongs,” Kirby continued. “And we’re working very, very hard at doing that through government channels. That’s the appropriate way to do that. And those — and those efforts are ongoing.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Thursday reiterated that the administration’s overarching message is that Americans should not travel to Russia at this time, given concerns about the country’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
Jean-Pierre added that the administration has been in contact with The Richardson Center, founded by the former governor, but declined to comment on Richardson’s travel or activities.
Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has been at the forefront of previous negotiations over bringing home detained U.S. residents. He played a role in the release of Trevor Reed from Russia earlier this year.
But officials have been less thrilled with his involvement in talks to release Griner and Whelan.
CNN reported that Richardson and a small team traveled to Moscow this week to meet with Russian officials.
Griner, a star in the WNBA and an Olympic gold medalist, was detained in February for bringing vape cartridges with hashish oil into Russia. Griner pleaded guilty last month, but she has insisted she did not intend to break the law. She was later sentenced to nine months in prison.
Whelan is a former Marine who has been held in Russia since 2018 on spying charges that he vehemently denies. He has been sentenced to 16 years in prison.
The Biden administration maintains both Griner and Whelan are wrongfully detained.
The Biden administration had reportedly floated a potential prisoner swap in which Griner and Whelan would be released in exchange for convicted Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout. Officials have publicly confirmed that they offered an exchange but have not explicitly said if it involved Bout.