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Practicing ‘fringe diplomacy,’ Israeli negotiator secured release of Brittney Griner

Mickey Bergman of the Richardson Center, which specializes in freeing American political prisoners, tells Times of Israel about the talks leading to the basketball player’s release

Tal Schneider

Tal Schneider is a Political Correspondent at The Times of Israel

Mickey Bergman, vice president and executive director of the Richardson Center, speaking at an event for families of imprisoned Venezuelans, in an undated photo. (Courtesy: Mickey Bergman)
Mickey Bergman, vice president and executive director of the Richardson Center, speaking at an event for families of imprisoned Venezuelans, in an undated photo. (Courtesy: Mickey Bergman)

Last week, at a small airport in Abu Dhabi, US basketball player Brittney Griner was traded for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Griner was jailed by Russian authorities in February — a few days before the country launched its invasion of Ukraine — for possession of less than a gram of cannabis oil. She was later sentenced to nine years in prison.

Bout, the inspiration for the fictional character of Viktor Orlov, as portrayed by Nicholas Cage in the movie “Lord of War,” has been described by US authorities as the world’s most notorious arms dealer. In 2008, after a long manhunt, he was arrested in Thailand, extradited to the US and later sentenced to 25 years in federal prison.

Playing a key role in the secret negotiations leading to Griner’s release was a small team working for the Richardson Center, a US organization specializing in returning imprisoned Americans around the world. One of the organization’s executives is Mickey Bergman, who grew up in Israel.

Bergman, 46, lives in Virginia, near Washington, DC, and works closely with Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico and US ambassador to the United Nations who heads the eponymous Richardson Center.

Bergman was behind the release of former Marine Trevor Reed from Russia in April 2022. He also coordinated the release of Jewish-American journalist Danny Fenster from Myanmar in November 2021. These days — along with other Richardson Center personnel — Bergman is involved in the negotiations to release Paul Whelan, a private security contractor and former US marine who was arrested in Russia and accused of espionage in December 2018.

In this image made from video provided by Russian Federal Security Service, WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner sits in the plane as she flies to Abu Dhabi to be exchanged for Russian citizen Viktor Bout, in Russia, December 9, 2022. (Russian Federal Security Service via AP)

In a few months Bergman will receive the James Foley award for his work at the Richardson Center. The prize is named after a freelance journalist and photographer who was kidnapped by the Islamic State terror group in Syria in 2012 and beheaded two years later.

“Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 2019 as part of his work at the Richardson Center, Mr. Bergman has helped pioneer the discipline of fringe diplomacy, exploring the spaces just beyond the boundaries of governmental capacity and authority,” Diane Foley, president and founder of the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, said in a statement. “Mr. Bergman and his team have facilitated the release of more political prisoners than any other organization. The world is a safer place thanks to his innovative barrier-breaking diplomacy.”

In an interview with The Times of Israel, Bergman spoke up about the negotiations leading to Griner’s release and the ongoing efforts to release Whelan. Following is our conversation, which was conducted in Hebrew and condensed and edited for clarity. The original interview can be read on The Times of Israel’s Hebrew sister site, Zman Israel.

Times of Israel: Tell us about how Brittney Griner’s family began working with the Richardson Center?

Bergman: Our mandate always comes from the families. We work on their behalf, and at no cost to them. Brittney’s agent contacted me in late February 2022, when she heard that we flew to Russia to negotiate the release of Trevor Reed and Paul Whelan.

Immediately after that, we met Cherelle Griner — Brittney’s wife — and I went through with her about who can help her within the US government, who she should talk with and what we should ask for.

These families find themselves thrown into an unfamiliar situation. There is no information, no explanations. Their world is turned upside down and their lives change overnight. That’s why we never pressure families into asking us to help them. So, at the end of that initial meeting we agreed that we would stay in touch, but we hadn’t been officially recruited yet.

Cameron Hume (left), Bill Richardson (center) and Mickey Bergman of the Richardson Center in Moscow’s Red Square in September 2022. (Courtesy Mickey Bergman)

Let us in on how the negotiations with the Russians began, shortly after the invasion of Ukraine

Bill Richardson and I flew to Moscow twice to meet with the Russian leadership. I also flew alone to meetings in Armenia. Because our delegation is private and informal, our meetings never take place in government offices. We meet in restaurants, hotel lobbies and private homes. The conversations are very friendly. Over the years we have developed personal relationships and that is what has helped us to resolve these crises.

Basically, we conduct open informal discussions with the other party. We don’t make grandiose statements and we focus on listening and understanding the other party in order to develop ideas that will enable us to reach a deal.

In July 2022, for example, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a public address, said that the administration made a significant offer to the Russians, but the Russians did not respond. His speech was seen by the Russians as a slap in the face because they thought that the American offer wasn’t symmetrical — and was therefore unreasonable.

As a direct result, our trip to Moscow was put on hold. For a few weeks we tried to find a solution over the phone and on Zoom and were unsuccessful. I flew alone to meet with [Russian counterparts] face to face, and two weeks later Richardson and I were both back in Moscow. There is no substitute for direct contact.

One of my meetings lasted several hours. In the first three hours, [the Russians] ‘explained’ to me what was really happening in the world. If I were a diplomat then I would have had to protest, but since I’m not a diplomat I sat and listened to the Russian government’s narrative. How [Vladimir] Putin sees the world, the return to [a world divided into] blocs, and who is in the Russian bloc.

It’s irrelevant whether I agree with it or not. For me, the most important thing is that I understand the [other party’s] narrative, because it helps me understand why the Russians do what they do, and thus helps us anticipate how they will react to American actions and statements.

The original deal was supposed to include Paul Whelan. What went wrong?

Throughout our negotiations regarding Brittney, we refused to talk about a deal that didn’t include Whelan. In February 2022 — even before Griner was in the picture — we came back to the US with two options: a one-for-one exchange for Trevor Reed, or a two-for-two exchange for Reed and Whelan.

Elizabeth Whelan, left, sister of US Marine Corps veteran and Russian prisoner Paul Whelan, holds a photo of her brother in Lafayette Park near the White House, in Washington, May 4, 2022. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

In the fall we thought we had reached an equation that would work, but the current dynamics between the American and Russian administrations prevented effective negotiations. External factors, which I cannot talk about, entered the picture at that stage.

This resulted in a sense of urgency and an American understanding that at the moment only a one-for-one deal was possible. They decided to go for the Griner-Bout deal. Only in the last couple of days before the deal was finalized, we realized that Paul Whelan was left out of it. In my opinion, the president’s decision [to go ahead with the trade] was the right thing to do under the circumstances, but it is a complicated and problematic decision. Paul’s condition is not good. We intend to return to Moscow in the near future to find a suitable solution.

How is the Russian government using cases such as Griner’s for its own gain?

In most cases, the people who are kidnapped or arrested have done something minor. But then two things happen. For one, they are accused of excessive charges; Griner, for example, was accused of drug trafficking. Plus the government starts asking for things in exchange for that prisoner. At that point it becomes clear that this person is a political prisoner. In the US there is a legal definition for such a situation: wrongfully detained.

Even if the initial arrest is weakly justified — and I’m not saying that Britney’s arrest was justified — the process quickly turns into political imprisonment. Trevor Reed, for example, was arrested because he was drunk at a New Year’s party in Moscow. He was accused of endangering the lives of Russian officers.

Having grown up in Israel, how do you feel when you meet with officials from dictatorial regimes?

Usually my Israeli background is irrelevant. There are no secrets in the world. Everyone knows that I am Israeli and a former officer in the IDF. Sometimes it helps in small talk and sometimes it is problematic. In North Korea, Venezuela and Myanmar, it was irrelevant. When I work with the Iranians, it has significance, especially when there were campaigns on Twitter and in the media claiming that I am a Mossad agent. This harmed our ability to communicate with Iran and it even reached a point that my family and myself received threats.

Joey and Paula Reed pose for a photo with a portrait of their son, Marine veteran and Russian prisoner Trevor Reed, at their home in Fort Worth, Texas, February 15, 2022. (LM Otero/AP)

Why do the families and the administration work with you? Can a private person make offers that the government can’t?

Working with the American administration is very complex, sometimes more complex than working with the Russians or the Iranians. This is not because they are bad people. Quite the opposite, these are smart, good and dedicated public servants. It is just that the US government has complex interests with a country like Russia, especially these days. We, the Richardson Center and the families, have only one interest and that inevitably causes friction.

Sometimes the friction is public and sometimes someone’s ego is hurt. The administration would have preferred us to leave and not get in the middle, but then the prisoners don’t get released. When we returned American Jewish journalist Danny Fenster from Myanmar last year, we did it without the administration’s help.

Mickey Bergman (left) and Danny Fenster after Fenster’s release from Myanmar in November 2021. (Courtesy Mickey Bergman)

They thought we wouldn’t succeed, especially without their help. When we came back with Danny it put them under pressure, and it didn’t look good. So we have some ability to try to make them do things they don’t always want to do quickly. Again, it’s not because there are bad people in the administration. On the contrary, the people there are smart, good and have good intentions. But the world is complex and this work is complicated.

Because we don’t work for the administration, we have the ability to try out different ideas and meet with people who find the administration difficult to deal with. At the end of the day, it’s a bit funny because we’re just three people with limited means.

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