Paul Whelan's brother fears he'll be left behind again in prisoner swap with Russia
Paul Whelan's family fears he may remain in a Russian labor camp if the U.S. agrees to a deal that would free only Brittney Griner, a standout Phoenix Mercury basketball player who has been imprisoned in Russia since February on drug charges.
"Whether through Russia's bad faith or the U.S.'s bad hand, Paul may be left behind again," Whelan's twin brother, David, wrote in an email to journalists earlier this week.
Whelan, a former Marine from Novi, was arrested in December 2018 in Moscow on charges of espionage. He worked as head of global security for auto supplier BorgWarner at the time of his arrest.
He has vehemently denied the charges, insisting he was merely a tourist and visited Russia to attend the wedding of a friend. The U.S. government considers both Whelan and Griner Americans wrongfully detained.
Whelan's fate, however, may — or may not — be intertwined with Griner's.
US waiting for weeks on Whelan-Griner offer
The U.S. put "a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago" that would see both of them returned in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a news conference in late July.
Bout, dubbed "the Merchant of Death," was convicted in 2011 in a New York federal court on charges of terrorism. Though Bout denied the allegations, prosecutors said he was planning to sell up to $20 million in weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, to shoot down U.S. helicopters. He was sentenced to 25 years in a federal prison.
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However, Russian media reports cast doubt on the exchange.
"There have been reports that the Russian government is concerned about the reciprocity of the offer," David Whelan wrote. "This might mean that they seek an additional concession from the U.S. government. Or it might mean they are willing to relinquish one fewer concession themselves."
Russia wants more in prisoner swap
Bloomberg reported Monday that its sources inside the Kremlin said the Russian government wouldn't make a two-for-one deal. If the U.S. wants to see both Whelan and Griner released, it will need to trade for two Russians.
And CNN reported last week that Russian leaders asked the U.S. to include Vadim Krasikov, a former colonel in Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), in the deal.
But that's not a simple arrangement. It involves negotiations with another country because Krasikov is serving a sentence of life in prison in Germany after being convicted of killing a former Chechen fighter in 2019 in Berlin’s Tiergarten Park.
Adrienne Watson, a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council, said in a statement to Bloomberg: “Holding two wrongfully detained Americans hostage for the release of a Russian assassin in a third country’s custody is not a serious counteroffer. It is a bad faith attempt to avoid the deal on the table that Russia should take.”
David Whelan noted that an Interfax report quoted Ivan Melnikov, vice president of the Russian branch of the International Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, saying the U.S. should trade Bout for Griner, but leave Whelan out of the deal.
“I think that a gradual exchange can be more effective, and you can offer to change Mr. Whelan in the future, since a large number of Russian citizens are kept in American prisons,” Melnikov said in the report.
Calls to exclude Whelan
And Izvestia, a news organization the BBC classifies as pro-Kremlin, reported Tuesday that a "high-ranking informed source" said the degree of Whelan's so-called offense — espionage — demands a heftier trade.
"The competent authorities of the Russian Federation" do not consider "the possibility of exchanging a spy for a civilian," Izvestia's inside source reportedly said.
David Whelan is concerned the U.S. might be willing to take a deal for Griner alone.
"The U.S. has showed that it is hampered in finding success in offering concessions that the Russian government will accept for Paul's freedom," he wrote. "How many offers have there been in the last 3.5 years? What is the U.S. willing to concede? It all underscores that it may be some time yet before any outcome is known."
Whelan was not included in a prisoner swap in late April that traded Trevor Reed, another former Marine, for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a convicted drug smuggler sentenced to 20 years in a U.S. prison.
Sewing buttonholes in a labor camp
Sentenced to 16 years in a Russian labor camp, Whelan now spends most days sewing buttonholes into uniforms with limited contact with the outside world.
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, issued a guilty plea last month on drug charges. She was arrested in February at an airport near Moscow with cannabis oil in her luggage. Though she had a prescription for medical marijuana from a U.S. doctor, the drug is illegal in Russia.
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Closing arguments in her case are expected to take place Thursday, Reuters reported, and a verdict should come "very soon" after. Under Russian law, she could face up to 10 years in prison.
The negotiations come amid unraveling relations between the U.S. and Russia.
The U.S. has sent billions of dollars in arms and other aid to support Ukraine in the war, and the Senate last week passed a nonbinding resolution urging Blinken to designate Russia a state sponsor of terrorism.
On Tuesday, the Kremlin threatened that any move to do so would be "crossing the point of no return" and would lead Russia cut off diplomatic relations with the U.S.
David Whelan said his family doesn't underestimate the difficulty of these negotiations.
"We hope that the Biden administration will stick to its initial offer, at least to the extent that it will continue to include both Paul Whelan's and Brittney Griner's release," he said. "... We hope that Paul will not be left behind again."
Contact Kristen Jordan Shamus: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Brother fears Paul Whelan won't be part of swap with Russia for Griner