US proposal to Russia to free Whelan and Gershkovich included swapping a number of suspected Russian spies, sources say

US proposal to Russia to free Whelan and Gershkovich included swapping a number of suspected Russian spies, sources say
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The Biden administration offered to trade a large number of Russian nationals detained on espionage charges abroad in exchange for the release of Americans Paul Whelan and Evan Gershkovich from Russia, two people familiar with the matter told CNN on Tuesday.

State Department spokesperson Matt Miller revealed earlier Tuesday that the United States had “made a new and significant proposal” to Russia in recent weeks to secure Whelan and Gershkovich’s release, but that proposal was rejected by Moscow.

Efforts by the Biden administration to bring home Whelan and Gershkovich, both of whom have been designated as wrongfully detained by the State Department, have not yielded results. Whelan marks five years in Russian detention this month. Monday marked the 250th day of Gershkovich’s imprisonment.

Miller declined to provide specific details on the “new and significant proposal. However, the sources told CNN that US and European officials said they would release Russians who have been convicted for espionage, but no other crimes, as well as suspected Russian spies, in exchange for Whelan and Gershkovich, both of whom Moscow has accused of espionage. Several European countries have arrested suspected Russian spies recently, including Norway, Estonia, Poland, Sweden and Slovenia.

CNN previously reported that the Biden administration was scouring the globe for offers to free Whelan and Gershkovich after Russia failed to respond in a substantive way to an offer presented earlier this year.

“We are constantly discussing this issue with our allies and our partners who can assist us,” Miller said at a news briefing Tuesday.

The latest proposal, however, excluded a former colonel from Russia’s domestic spy organization, Vadim Krasikov, who is serving a life sentence for murder in Germany and has long been at the top of Russia’s list to get back, according to the sources.

Miller declined to detail how the offer was presented to Moscow, but noted that the US has “pressed the importance of this case through a number of channels with the Russian government.”

“I’m not going to get into the details of how we communicate with them, but we have ways to communicate with them. We have ways to make offers known to them. We will continue to do so and we hope that we will be able to secure their release,” Miller said.

He noted that the proposal was for both Whelan and Gershkovich, saying, “we have made clear all along that we do not want to leave either one of them behind.”

Whelan’s brother David Whelan told CNN on Tuesday that the family had been informed that a new offer was made and rejected, but they were not told any specifics about the proposal.

“We’re glad the US government continues to try to return Paul to freedom. Unfortunately, it seems to take them a very long time to screw themselves up to engage with the Kremlin, all the while Paul is sitting in deteriorating conditions in Mordovia,” David Whelan said. “We hope that their next effort comes more quickly and is more successful.”

Paul Whelan, who was arrested in December 2018 and sentenced in June 2020 to 16 years in prison on an espionage claim he vehemently denies, has also expressed disappointment that more has not been done to secure his release.

“I never thought it would come to this,” Whelan told CNN last week. “I really thought that the US government would have this worked out years ago.

“I don’t know if diplomacy has failed in this case, but I can tell you that it’s going awfully slow,” said Whelan, who called CNN exclusively from his remote prison camp in Mordovia.

“It’s disappointing that there have been two trades that went ahead without me. I think the US government should have said, ‘No, we’re not going to do trades unless Paul’s included’ and made sure that, you know, all of us got home, not just two,” Whelan said, referencing prisoner swaps last year that brought home Trevor Reed and Brittney Griner. US officials have said that the Russians refused to include Whelan in those swaps for Konstantin Yaroshenko and Viktor Bout, respectively.

Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter, was arrested in March and charged with espionage, which he denies. A Russian court has repeatedly extended his pretrial detention at Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo Prison.

His sister Danielle Gershkovich told CNN on Monday that the ordeal for his family is “painful” and “getting harder” as time passes with no progress.

“It’s now been almost or over eight months since he’s been imprisoned. And he’s missed out on so much. And we dearly miss him, but we have to stay strong and just keep fighting for Evan,” she said.

This story has been updated with additional details.

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