EXCLUSIVE: Paul Whelan says his incarceration ‘needs to be resolved now’

American prisoner Paul Whelan speaks with WTOP's J.J. Green about his five-year anniversary in a Russian prison.

Speaking on a crackly phone line in a Russian prison just after 8:30 p.m. local time in Mordovia on Thursday, Paul Whelan expressed deep concern that too much time is passing as the U.S. tries to free him and Wall Street Journal journalist Evan Gershkovich from their illegal imprisonment.

Concerned that the momentum to liberate them might lose traction because it’s an election year, Whelan wants to talk to President Joe Biden.

“I’ve put in multiple requests to speak to him,” Whelan said.

He said he’s asked more than a half dozen times.

“He does speak to my family, and he has spoken to my parents, but I’d like to speak to him personally,” Whelan added.

Whelan said if he gets that opportunity, “I will tell him I still don’t feel that everything that can be done is being done. I think there’s a lot more that could be done.”

The Biden team was asked for comment, but did not respond in time for the publication of this story.

One reason for Whelan’s renewed urgency is the fatal poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who died in February while serving a 19-year prison sentence on extremism charges that he condemned as politically motivated.

“If they can get to him, they can get to me. They could poison me to make me seriously ill or they could try to injure me,” Whelan said.

Whelan said harming, but not killing him, could be used as a tactic by Moscow to get what they want.

At this point, according to Whelan, Vadim Krasikov, 58, a convicted assassin in a German prison, is at the top of the Kremlin’s list of Russian citizens it wants to exchange for Whelan and Gershkovich.

“[Krasikov] works for the FSB (Russia’s Federal Security Service) and he was sent out to murder people around the world. He went after an Armenian that the Russians say was a terrorist, in broad daylight in a park, and he was arrested for it,” Whelan said.

Forty-year-old Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, an asylum seeker in Germany, was shot dead by Krasikov in Berlin’s Tiergarten Park. Moscow claimed he was a terrorist. Allegedly, Khangoshvili worked for Georgian Intelligence identifying Russian spies and jihadists.

Krasikov is the same person that was allegedly in line to be to exchanged for Navalny, who died mysteriously in a Siberian prison.

Whelan was asked why he thinks Moscow is going to such great lengths to get Krasikov back.

“The Russians want this person back because they feel that he went out to do his job and that job was to take out a terrorist, and also to put confidence in the minds of the other Russian FSB assassins, that if they go out and do their job and they get caught, that their government will come for them,” he said.

Whelan is optimistic a deal will be reached to free him and Gershkovich, but he still wonders: “Is that going to happen this year, or in five years, or in 10 years?”

He said he’s spoken to high-level Biden administration officials, and has been assured that he is top of mind. But he said, “My 54th birthday passed a month ago, and I’ve been here five years, three months in a few days. It’s another milestone.”

And with an election cycle in full swing, he said, “I’m hoping the people in D.C. haven’t forgotten me.”

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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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