In Remembrance of Fletcher Alumnus Bill Richardson

By Natasha Wood, MALD 2024 Candidate, The Fletcher School

In an effort to explain Bill Richardson’s success in freeing American hostages abroad, including in Russia, former U.S. President Bill Clinton once said that “bad people like him.” In his book “How to Sweet-Talk a Shark,” Richardson prescribed his success differently: “Respect the other side. Try to connect personally. Use a sense of humor. Let the other side save face.”

Richardson passed away on September 1, 2023. In the past eighteen months, the former governor of New Mexico, U.S. Secretary of Energy, ambassador to the UN, and Fletcher alumnus was involved in the release of three Americans held in Russia. His work in Russia was risky, unconventional, and effective, and earned him high praise and periodic criticism. He leaves behind the legacy of a master negotiator who, at the end of his life, was committed first and foremost to getting Americans home.

In Russia, Richardson enjoyed several benefits not afforded to official envoys and negotiators, whom he worked in parallel with. Unencumbered by bureaucracy, he was often more nimble. In April 2022, U.S. Navy veteran Taylor Dudley was detained after crossing the border between Poland and Kaliningrad. Though Dudley was not classified by the U.S. government as “wrongfully detained,” Richardson worked discreetly with contacts in Moscow and Kaliningrad, as well as several U.S. diplomats, to spearhead negotiations and secured his release nine months later.

Richardson was also able to meet with Russian officials and discuss deals that would have been off the table for the U.S. negotiation team. During the 2022 negotiations to free the former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed from Russian detention, Richardson reportedly worked closely with a Moscow-based Armenian businessman named Ara Abramyan, who purports close ties to President Vladimir Putin. Shortly after Reed’s release, his father Joey Reed noted that “It all depends upon the president, but had (Richardson) not gone and broke the ice and put deals on the table? I don’t know how far the bureaucracy would have gone.”

The sensitive nature of hostage negotiations makes it difficult to say conclusively what role Richardson played, but families he has worked with consistently credit his efforts. After two-time Olympian Brittney Griner was detained in February 2022 shortly before the Russian invasion of  Ukraine, the Richardson Center for Global Engagement was involved in negotiating her release, along with that of Paul Whelan and three other Americans. The Griner family publicly recognized Bill Richardson for his efforts upon her release.

Richardson began negotiating hostage releases in 1994 when he was a New Mexico congressman. One of his constituents, an Army helicopter pilot, was shot down and captured in North Korea while conducting a training mission over the Demilitarized Zone. Within a few days, Richardson was able to secure his release and bring his co-pilot’s remains home.

Richardson was not immune from criticism. In September 2022, during negotiations to free Griner, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price indicated that unofficial diplomatic efforts such as Richardson’s were “likely to hinder” progress on the Griner and Whelan cases. A July 2022 Politico report cited anonymous officials who felt Richardson’s work was an effort to maintain relevance in global affairs.

In 2022, Richardson brushed aside criticism. “There are a lot of nervous nellies in the government that think they could know it all, and that’s not the case,” he said. “Look at my track record over 30 years.”

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