US negotiator ‘cautiously optimistic’ about prisoner deal with Russia

The Biden administration’s top hostage negotiator said the U.S. is engaged in a “full-court press” to trigger the simultaneous release of Americans Paul Whelan and Evan Gershkovich, whom the U.S. government declares are wrongfully detained in Russia.

“If you were to ask, do we have a plan? Absolutely, we have a plan. We are trying to map it out in time and space,” Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger D. Carstens told WTOP.

The plan he referred to revolves around a deal for both Whelan and Gershkovich being released together. Careful not to reveal any details about the negotiations or those involved, the straight-talking Carstens, a retired Army Special Forces lieutenant colonel, said he’s “cautiously optimistic.”

During several phone calls over the Christmas holiday, Whelan told WTOP he was depressed and worried the U.S. might be planning to make a one-for-one deal with Moscow to bring Gershkovich home and leave him behind.

Whelan’s main concern, he said, is “the Russians are adamant that they only want to do one-for-one exchanges.”

But Carstens said, “right now there is no one-for-one,” and he said he and his team have told Whelan as much.

Disinformation may be the reason that talk of a trade for Gershkovich alone has circulated.

Prison officials eavesdrop, plant disinformation

Carstens said he speaks to Whelan at least a couple of times a month and members of his team talk to Whelan more frequently. He said they are certain that when they do, they are not alone on the phone lines.

“We talk to Paul, and we’re very upfront. We know that when we talked to Paul, the Russians are listening in on that phone call, and yet we’re pretty candid, because we’re negotiating with the Russians. So what if they are listening to phone calls? We’re pretty open with Paul on these calls,” Carstens said.

He said the Russians may be using what they learn from those calls to create deceptive messages that are fed into Whelan’s information ecosystem. It’s a notorious procedure that Carstens called “the rumor mills.” They are often used to target prisoners.

“At times, the Russians have tried to pass disinformation to the prisoners,” Carstens said. “They did that with Brittney Griner. They did it with Trevor Reed, and they certainly do it with Paul.”

Contrary to Whelan’s concern that the U.S. may be working on an equal swap of a Russian for Gershkovich, Carstens said, “Right now there’s no one-for-one deal. What we are trying to do is work out a deal with the Russians for both Paul Whelan and Evan Gershkovich.”

Reluctant to appear to be bargaining in public, Carstens said his Russian counterparts know where the U.S. stands. Their negotiations are focused on both Whelan and Gershkovich.

“There is no peeling off right now,” he said.

Another reason for Carsten’s “cautious optimism” is that “the Russians have not come back [saying] we don’t like your offer; we want to focus on the one-for-one.”

Despite this hopefulness, Carstens said he will continue to proceed carefully because of a past experience that still weighs heavily on him.

“I made the mistake of telling a family member that we were really close to bringing their loved one home once, and that person is still in jail,” Carstens said. “What I never tell people is, that specific example is Paul Whelan.”

On a crackly phone line from the IK-17 prison camp in Mordovia, 300 miles east of Moscow, it was possible to hear voices and sounds and activity in the background behind Whelan during the Christmas Eve call.

Still, he spoke of feeling isolated, in danger and forgotten.

“I feel alone. I feel that I’ve been left behind, obviously. I feel that I’ve been abandoned. I feel that the people that should be doing more to get me home aren’t doing anything or certainly not doing enough,” he told WTOP.

And he wants to tell them directly.

“If I could get President Biden on the phone, if I could get Jake Sullivan on the phone, if I could get Antony Blinken on the phone again, I would want to have a courageous conversation with them, because this has gone on far too long. This has gone on far too long. I mean, I’m an innocent tourist,” Whelan said.

Carstens, meanwhile, said he’s resolute.

“This administration’s engaged, and we all really want to get this done,” he said.

Whelan’s case was the first that Carstens took on after his appointment to his position four years ago. And he said he’s unwavering.

“Nothing’s gonna make me happier than to have Paul Whelan home, me drinking a beer with him at the Exchange Tavern, right outside the White House, and then putting this case in my rearview mirror,” he said.

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J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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