On Christmas Eve, the phone rang at 5:58 a.m. The call rolled to voicemail. The voice on the message was very familiar, even though he and this WTOP reporter had never spoken before.
Calm, polite and quietly desperate, the voice said, “My name is Paul Whelan. I’m a U.S. citizen being held hostage by the Russian government. I’d like to speak to you about that.”
Hours later, he called WTOP again with another message — an urgent one for President Joe Biden.
“Mr. President,” he said. “You promised to bring me home. I’m still here. There has to be more that you can do to secure my release.”
Whelan, who on Dec. 28 will have been in Russian custody for five years, was not speaking generally about the President’s team.
“The concern that I have is that diplomatic efforts have failed and not enough is being done to secure my release from the very top,” he said.
In response, a spokesperson for the National Security Council told WTOP in Whelan’s case, the White House has made and will continue to make significant offers for his release.
A message for President Biden
Whelan, who is 54, believes a lack of direct action by Mr. Biden himself is the reason he’s still in a Russian labor camp.
“The House and Senate have been quite supportive. The four consulates (U.S., Canada, Ireland and Britain) are quite supportive. The ambassadors come here to the middle of nowhere to visit me, and I know that Jake Sullivan and Antony Blinken care, and are engaged,” Whelan said.
The former Marine said Biden is “the guy that made the decision to leave me behind twice,” and Whelan said he is certain the president can make a deal to bring him home, almost immediately.
“My message to him is quite simply: I’ve been told that everyone is doing all they can and that my release is a top priority. Promises have been made, and I need everyone who has made those promises to now man up and honor them.”
A spokesperson for the National Security Council told WTOP there is no higher priority for President Biden than bringing home the Americans still wrongfully detained and held hostage abroad, including Whelan.
Whelan said in a subsequent phone call to WTOP that his morale is rapidly sinking.
“I’m quite depressed. As a matter of fact, I mean, it’s Christmastime. I’m away from family. I’ve been here five years. I’m surrounded by criminals. It’s not a healthy environment,” Whelan said.
He’s incarcerated at IK-17, a labor penal colony eight hours southeast of Moscow. One of his biggest concerns is loneliness.
“There really aren’t people to talk to. There aren’t people to really interact with,” Whelan said. “I have books and I write letters and make phone calls but it’s not the life that I used to live and it’s not the life that I want to live.”
It is, however, a life that could be cut short at any moment.
A string of recent attacks
“People carry knives, they use stimulants, there are fights,” Whelan told WTOP.
In fact, he believes he’s been targeted for retribution by a powerful official at the prison.
“The biggest problem that I’m having is with the deputy warden. He has set up provocations to try to have me injured in retaliation for him getting in trouble,” Whelan said.
He also said the official “had two prisoners, one that works for him, demand $1,100 in protection money, which I refused.”
Whelan told WTOP he was attacked while working at a sewing table in late November.
The altercation started after a new prisoner blocked part of the production line. After Whelan asked him repeatedly to move, he responded by hitting Whelan in the face, breaking his glasses.
The prisoner attempted to strike him again, but Whelan blocked the attempt and other prisoners intervened to prevent the prisoner from striking him again.
Whelan said he’s been quiet for most of the five years he’s been in captivity, trusting the U.S. government would bring him home, but his hope is fading as he reflects on what the U.S. has done.
“They (the U.S. government) basically abandoned me here without any options for a future trade,” he said.
The U.S., he said, used up its leverage when WNBA star Brittney Griner and former Marine Trevor Reed were swapped for arms dealer Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian smuggler, who were both serving time in U.S. prisons.
“They have no bargaining position now,” he said. “And knowing that the government has done that is quite depressing. And regardless of all the promises that are being made and all the optimism that I’m hearing, I’m still here.”
As he faces another Christmas incarcerated in Russia, Whelan said, “I know that my parents are elderly, they’re mid-80s. They have health problems and I quite honestly don’t think I’ll see them again.”
White House responds to Paul Whelan’s concern he’s been abandoned
The White House reacted after Paul Whelan told WTOP in a Christmas Eve call from prison in Russia that President Biden is not doing enough to secure his release.
National Security Council Spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement:
“There is no higher priority for President Biden than bringing home the Americans still wrongfully detained and held hostage abroad, including Paul Whelan. The President’s commitment to wrongfully detained Americans and hostages has resulted in dozens of Americans being safely returned to their loved ones, including in situations that had long appeared hopeless and those that required hard and controversial decisions.
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.”
Dec. 28 will mark the fifth anniversary of Whelan’s detention by the Kremlin.