Paul Whelan, an ex-U.S. Marine detained in Russia, expressed dismay on Thursday that more had not been done to secure his release and urged President Joe Biden to act fast following a prisoner swap that freed U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner.
Griner was released in exchange for arms dealer Viktor Bout, a transaction that may leave the United States with little leverage to negotiate for Whelan, who is serving 16 years on espionage charges which he denies. He was detained in 2018 and convicted two years later.
“I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four-year anniversary of my arrest is coming up,” he told CNN.
“I would say that if a message could go to President Biden, that this is a precarious situation that needs to be resolved quickly.”
Biden said the United States would never give up on seeking Whelan’s freedom, but that the prisoner swap involving Griner left few options.
“Sadly and for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up,” Biden said.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a news conference: “This was not a choice of which American to bring home. The choice was one or none.”
Paul’s brother, David Whelan, said the U.S. made the right decision to get the deal that was possible rather than wait for one that wasn’t going to happen, but that that did not bode well for his twin.
The Biden administration let the Whelan family know in advance that he would not be released along with Griner, he added.
“That early warning meant that our family has been able to mentally prepare for what is now a public disappointment for us. And a catastrophe for Paul,” he said in a statement.
Biden is looking forward to speaking with the Whelan family today or when they are ready, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. “He is open and ready to communicate with them,” she said. Blinken told CBS News he had spoken to Paul Whelan’s sister.
Republican lawmaker Adam Kinzinger was critical of the Biden administration.
“So a basketball star is released, we can celebrate, but what about Paul Whelan?” he wrote on Twitter. “Surely an arms dealer is worth two innocent people?”
Paul Whelan also said he had been “led to believe that things were moving in the right direction and that the governments were negotiating and that something would happen fairly soon.”
White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told CNN the United States was not returning to square one with Whelan. “It was pretty obvious, early on, that they were going to treat Mr Whelan separate and distinct from Brittney,” he said. “That’s still the case.”