Blinken Promises to Free Paul Whelan From Russian Prison

AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

Will Secretary of State Blinken be able to fulfill his promise to bring Paul Whelan home? Blinken told the audience at a Washington, D.C. think tank on Tuesday that he had spoken with Whelan on Monday.

Blinken did not offer details from the phone call. Paul Whelan is a former Marine and a businessman who is imprisoned in Russia on the charge of espionage. The State Department designated Whelan as wrongfully detained more than five years ago. His family and the State Department deny that Whelan is a spy. 

"Our intensive efforts to bring Paul home continue every single day, and they will until he and Evan Gershkovich and every other American wrongfully detained is back with their loved ones," the U.S. secretary of state said in his remarks at the Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C. think tank.

Blinken referenced Evan Gershkovich in his remarks. Evan is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal based at the Moscow bureau. He was arrested while on a reporting trip outside Moscow and charged with espionage. There is a lot of pressure on the Biden administration to secure the release of both Whelan and Gershkovick, the two most high-profile American prisoners in Russia. Both men have been kept in the news by their families and colleagues. 

This is the third phone call that Blinken has had with Whelan. They also spoke in August 2023 and December 2022. State Department spokesman Matt Miller said that Blinken “assured Paul Whelan, as he has in his previous calls, that we’re with you. We have not forgotten you. We continue to work to try to secure your release and we will continue to work to try to secure your release. “Your release is a top priority, not just for the secretary, but for President Biden as well,” Miller said.

Whelan told Binken in a previous phone call that “leaving me here the first time painted a target on my back and leaving me here the second time basically signed a death warrant. ”He was talking about prison swaps made between the United States and Russia when he was not included in the final deals. Most notably, Whelan was rumored to be a part of the prisoner swap that released WNBA player Brittney Griner in exchange for a notorious international arms dealer,  Viktor Bout, nicknamed the “Merchant of Death”, whom Putin wanted back. 

Whelan and his family do not think that the Biden administration is going all it can to secure Whelan's release. The State Department has maintained that Russian officials refused to negotiate for his release in those swaps.

Whelan called on Biden to use all available resources to secure this release "as you would do if your own son had been taken hostage" on the fifth anniversary of his detention.

“I’m more than past ready to return home and I’m counting on the US government to come for me and soon. The time is now to take decisive action and bring this debacle to a close,” Whelan told CNN from his prison camp in Mordovia.

Whelan has placed more than half a dozen phone calls to CNN. He expressed both confidence that the Biden administration is working to get him released while maintaining strong frustration that those efforts have been unsuccessful. 

His family, especially his sister, Elizabeth, have been strong advocates for Whelan's release. Keeping his story in the press keeps the pressure on the White House not to forget about him. She has done many interviews in the media to keep her brother's name in the press. She attended a session of the United Nations Security Council as a guest of U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield. During that session, Greenfield accused Russia of violating international law by wrongfully detaining Americans, including Whelan, and called for his release. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov chaired that meeting. 

Paul Whelan is a Michigan-based corporate security executive. He has U.S., British, Irish, and Canadian citizenship. He was visiting Moscow in December 2015 to attend a friend's wedding. That is when he was arrested on suspicion of espionage. There have been reports that perhaps he was set up by an alleged friend.

On Monday Miller said that the U.S. has put a significant offer on the table for the release of both Whelan and Gershkovich.“In fact, more than once we have put offers on the table to secure their release, and we will continue to engage to try to pursue, or try to obtain their release,” he said at a press briefing.

The Russians work in a private, non-transparent way. Secrecy is the Kremlin's brand. The Russians have consistently said they will not negotiate in public on prisoner swaps. Any time there are reports in the press, the Russians pull back from the negotiations. 

A Kremlin spokesman was asked about the fate of Americans detained in Russia. He said they can only be resolved in silence

Dmitry Peskov was asked to comment on news that Secretary of State Antony Blinken had spoken by phone earlier this week with Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine held in Russia since 2018.

“I want to recall the words of President Putin in his recent interview that these matters love silence, and they can only be resolved in silence,” Peskov said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Therefore, in our interests, in the interests of the American side, in the interests of those involved, it is better that this is all decided in silence,” he added.

Whelan was convicted of espionage charges in a secret trial in 2020. The Russians are secretive in conducting trials, especially when the trial concerns espionage. The press is usually barred and little information leaks out. 

Former Fox News host Tucker Carlson interviewed Putin in Moscow last week. During that interview, Carlson brought up a possible prisoner swap that would secure the release of Evan Gershkovich. Putin said a prisoner swap would probably be used for Evan's release but he didn't give details, such as when that might happen. Putin strung Carlson along by claiming he wants Evan to be released but negotiations must be done in secret.

“I also want him to return to his homeland, at last. I’m absolutely sincere,” Putin said. “But let me say once again: The dialogue continues. The more public we render these things of this nature, the more difficult it becomes to resolve them. Everything has to be done in a calm manner.”

However, in the interview with Carlson, the Russian president made a clear reference to Russian operative Vadim Krasikov, who is now serving a life sentence in Germany for killing a Chechen émigré in Berlin in 2019.

Unfortunately for Mr. Whelan and the other Americans being held in Russia, the Biden administration does not have a great record in securing prisoner releases. Perhaps the fact that this is a presidential election year and Biden needs all the good press he can get will spur the administration to work harder on behalf of American prisoners. That's a cynical way to look at the situation but it's realistic. There is nothing that Biden does without first considering the political implications. 

Putin sees the weakness projected by Joe Biden on the world stage. He is using American prisoners as leverage in negotiations to return criminal Russians home. He is emboldened since the United States sided with Ukraine after Putin's invasion and now arrests American journalists, like Gershkovich, which Russia has not done since the end of the Cold War. 


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