On the fifth anniversary of his arrest in Moscow, American prisoner Paul Whelan is worried the U.S. government will overlook him again.
During one of several phone calls to this reporter over the Christmas holiday, he said, “At this point, the five-year mark, I’m extremely concerned about being left behind a third time.”
Admitting that he’s under physical stress, deeply concerned about his safety and worried he’ll never see his aging parents again, Whelan said the U.S. is not following the format that would trigger his release.
“The Russians are adamant that they only want to do one for one exchanges. And as you know, there are two of us here, Evan (Gershkovich) and myself. I’m concerned that the Biden administration will work out a deal for Evan to be returned home, leaving me here a third time.”
Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal correspondent, was detained by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) on espionage charges in March.
Whelan said if Gerskovich is released before he is, “it could significantly limit the options they have for my future release.”
He said when WNBA star Brittney Griner was exchanged for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout, “they basically abandoned me here.”
“They left themselves without any options for bargaining. And since then, they’ve been making offers to the Russians, but they’re not for things the Russians have asked for,” Whelan said.
A key part of Whelan’s concern is how the Kremlin views him.
“They have this false narrative that I’m a brigadier general and a secret agent sent here on a secret mission and they’re not going to back away from that,” he said, adding that if the U.S. doesn’t offer to trade someone of that caliber, Moscow might first offer to trade for Gershkovich.
Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence after being arrested on flimsy espionage charges. Those charges fell apart even before what the U.S. government and international critics called a sham trial.
He said overlooking him again could doom his chances of getting out before the prison term ends.
Slow US activity led to Russian strategy change
The White House, when asked about Whelan’s case and his blunt reminder of President Joe Biden’s yet unfulfilled “promise to bring me home,” responded with a statement from National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson.
It read: “In the cases of Paul Whelan and Evan Gershkovich, we have made and will continue to make significant offers for them, including one earlier this month. We also continue our conversations with third party countries as we work to find a way to secure their release.”
Whelan believes one of those third-party countries is Germany.
“For 18 months, the Russians have been asking for an assassin who’s in a German prison, for an exchange. The Germans don’t want to give that person up. And so there’s a bit of a deadlock.”
The National Security Council declined WTOP’s query regarding Germany’s possible involvement in the negotiations.
The Kremlin’s demand for a prisoner in German custody has added to Whelan’s mounting stress and frustration.
Slightly elevating the tone of his voice, in one of the conversations with WTOP, he said: “They want an assassin for me. It’s ridiculous that we’ve gotten to this point in hostage situations! The longer they are allowed to go on, the more complicated and harder it is for them to be resolved.”
While exasperated that the Biden administration has not brought him home, he acknowledges that his ordeal has been a long, complex process that preceded President Biden’s term.
“Three days after I was arrested, they asked for Marina Butina, Victor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko. They repeated those requests several times while I was in custody, and President (Donald) Trump refused to trade me for them,” Whelan said.
Once Mr. Biden assumed office, according to Whelan, “The same requests were made.” But when former Marine Trevor Reed, was arrested in 2019 for assault on a Russian police officer, and Griner was jailed in 2022, on a drug-related charge, Moscow changed its negotiation strategy.
“The Russians decided, well, we’ll work out deals, with these two lower level cases and we’ll ask for more for Paul,” Whelan said.
Asked if Moscow has been negotiating fairly, he said, “they’ve continually asked for more, changing the goal posts, the entire time”.
According to Whelan, a Russian judge said soon after his detention, “I’d be home in two weeks,” because they were certain Trump would make the trade for Bout, Butina and Yaroshenko. When Mr. Trump declined, “they couldn’t believe that Trump wouldn’t do anything,” Whelan said.
After that happened, he believes Moscow viewed the hostage situation as an opportunity.
“They saw an avenue for basically cheating the Americans out of two high value prisoners, trading them for people that have committed low level street crimes (Reed and Griner), and they changed the goal posts.
Aside from the many risks of being incarcerated in a remote, prison camp in Russia that patrolled by violent offenders, some of whom are being urged by prison officials to attack him, he said, “you feel like you’re on a planet by yourself.”
You hear bits and pieces but you don’t really know what’s going on or not going on. The only thing I can do is judge by actions and I just don’t see people doing anything,” Whelan told WTOP.
He believes there’s a lot more the U.S. government could do to create the leverage to bring him home.
“If the FBI was bringing in people for espionage, or unregistered foreign agents; if DHS was confiscating Russian planes and vessels, if State was canceling visas and sending Russians home, I’d say, ‘OK, you know they’re doing something,'” Whelan said. “I just don’t see any action on anybody’s part. I mean, it’s just business as usual.”