U.S. Ambassador to Russia: "No higher priority" than release of Americans held in Russia

(AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)

The U.S. Ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan, says he has no higher priority than to secure the release of Americans held in Russia. Earlier this week Trevor Reed was released and is back in the United States. Two other Americans mentioned in recent reports remain as Russian prisoners, Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner. What about them?

Whelan asked that very question after the good news of Reed’s release. Why was he left behind in the prisoner swap?

“Why was I left behind? While I am pleased Trevor is home with his family, I have been held on a fictitious charge of espionage for 40 months,” Whelan said in a statement to his parents and shared with CNN. “The world knows this charge was fabricated. Why hasn’t more been done to secure my release?”

Both Reed and Whelan are U.S. citizens and former Marines. Whelan is also a citizen of the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Canada. He has been imprisoned in Moscow since 2018, arrested on espionage charges. He has consistently denied the truth in the charges. He was convicted in 2020 and sentenced to 16 years in prison. At the time, U.S. officials denounced the trial as unfair.

The Whelan family offered a statement upon Reed’s release expressing their happiness but noting it was a day of “varied emotions” since Paul wasn’t a part of the prisoner swap. They, too, questioned why he was left behind. The family wonders why they weren’t given more notice when Trevor was released but are pleased to hear the Biden administration say it will continue to work for Paul’s release.

Elizabeth Whelan, Paul Whelan’s sister, told CNN that she had received a call around 7:10 a.m. Wednesday “to let us know that Trevor was coming back and Paul was not.”

“I had barely time to alert my parents and brothers when it was all over the news,” she said, adding that she “was unhappy that we were given so little time to absorb this bad news.”

Her parents on Wednesday “were just devastated, completely crushed,” and expecting to have to relay the news to Paul Whelan, with whom they spoke Wednesday. However, he had already heard it from Russian television and “was very upset,” Elizabeth Whelan said.

“When I had a virtual call with the SPEHA group later that day I let them know in no uncertain terms what I thought of the administration’s terrible decision to leave Paul behind,” she said, referencing the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs. “I expect to continue communication with State and the NSC on an extremely regular basis until Paul is returned also.”

“I am glad that President Biden reiterated this morning his vow to bring Paul home. Because otherwise it feels as though his pledge ‘not to walk away’ from Paul, given last summer in Geneva, feels hollow today,” Paul Whelan’s brother David said.

When Reed was released, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters the release of Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was exchanged for Reed, “narrows the chances” of Whelan’s release. She didn’t release any further details on that statement. Both she and State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Whelan’s case is one the administration works on ” day in, day out.” Let’s hope they are a little more savvy in their negotiations than the people in Biden’s administration have a history of being in past negotiations. Remember, many of them had roles in such past agreements as the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Climate Accord.

Perhaps the loved ones of Whelan and WNBA star Brittney Griner should do as the parents of Trevor Reed did. Make some noise. Get out and talk to the press. Go to protest in front of the White House if Biden refuses to meet with them, as he did initially with Trevor’s parents, Paula and Joey Reed. The Reeds worked with professionals who could shepherd them through the process of getting their son home. They were initially told by the State Department to stay calm, keep quiet, and let the diplomatic experts do their jobs. But, weeks turned into months and so on with no new good news. Then Putin invaded Ukraine and that complicated things.

Some are now encouraging others to do as the Reeds did and get aggressive about the release of their loved ones. Let’s face it, these Americans are political prisoners.

The State Department and the WNBA has preached silence in the hopes that Griner would not become the kind of high profile political prisoner that Russia could use like a pawn on a chessboard. But that’s wishful thinking. Of course Griner was always going to become a political prisoner. This was easier to predict than the possible success of an attempted Griner slam dunk. It is past time for supporters to shed their silence and speak out for her return. They only need to take a cursory look at Trevor Reed’s case and the activism of Reed’s parents—done with 1/1,000,000 of Griner’s cultural capital—to see that this could prove to be a positive approach—or at least more positive than doing nothing. The possibilities could be seen in how the release of Reed spurred a long overdue public discussion about Griner. The State Department commented on the matter with spokesperson Ned Price saying to CNN, “When it comes to Brittney Griner, we are working very closely with her team. Her case is a top priority for us. We’re in regular contact with her team.”

Griner’s wife also posted a touching statement of support when Trevor Reed was released.

Ambassador Sullivan told CNN that the release of American prisoners in Russia is a top priority.

Let’s hope that soon both Whelan and Griner are on planes back to their loved ones, too.