Detained American Paul Whelan expressed his frustration that more has not been done to secure his release in an exclusive CNN interview hours after another detained American, Brittney Griner, was freed.
Whelan said he was happy that Griner was released, but told CNN, “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.”
“I was arrested for a crime that never occurred,” he said in a phone call from the penal colony where he is being held in a remote part of Russia. “I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here.”
The interview took place shortly after President Joe Biden, standing alongside Griner’s wife Cherelle at the White House, also expressed regret that the US had not been able to get Whelan out. Biden vowed the US would “never give up” on him. US officials said the Russians refused to negotiate his release.
“This was not a situation where we had a choice of which American to bring home. It was a choice between bringing home one particular American – Brittney Griner – or bringing home none,” a US senior administration official said Thursday morning.
Whelan said he was surprised that he had been left behind.
“I was led to believe that things were moving in the right direction, and that the governments were negotiating and that something would happen fairly soon,” he said.
Whelan, a former marine who is a US, Irish, British and Canadian citizen, was detained at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 by Russian authorities who alleged he was involved in an intelligence operation. He was convicted and sentenced in June 2020 to 16 years in prison in a trial US officials denounced as unfair.
US officials have indicated that the Russians refused to release him despite US efforts at negotiations, and Whelan said he was told that because the Russians have accused him of being a spy, “they’ve put me at a level higher than what they did with Trevor (Reed) and Brittney.”
“That raises a lot of concerns because none of it is true. And they’re trying to get out of United States, what the United States may not be able to provide, but this is basically political extortion,” he said.
He said he was aware that he was considered in a different category than Griner – “the Russians have always said so.”
“They’ve always considered me to be at a higher level than other criminals of my sort and for whatever reason, I’m treated differently than another individual here from a Western country that’s also on a charge of espionage. So even though we’re both here for espionage, I’m treated much differently than he is, and my treatment is also much different than others held for espionage at other prisons,” Whelan said.
‘My bags are packed’
Whelan said he hopes that Biden and his administration “would do everything they could to get me home, regardless of the price they might have to pay at this point.”
“I would say that if a message could go to President Biden, that this is a precarious situation that needs to be resolved quickly,” he said.
“My bags are packed. I’m ready to go home. I just need an airplane to come and get me,” he said.
Whelan said he would like to speak to Biden directly, noting he had spoken to an administration official earlier in the day about the situation, but “I think that message really needs to go to people like the president so they understand personally what I’m dealing with and what we deal with in these foreign prisons and under these circumstances.”
“It’s quite obvious that I’m being held hostage,” he said.
Biden acknowledged the Whelan family on Thursday, saying that the prisoner swap for Griner was “not a choice of which American to bring home.”
“Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s,” Biden said. “And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”
The Biden administration has ideas about “new forms of offers” they are going to try with the Russians in an effort to secure Whelan’s release, a senior administration official said.
The official said there is a recognition that the US needs to make available “something more, something different” from what they have offered to the Russians thus far.
Whelan told CNN that “the president and his team are going to have to look at what they have that is valuable that these people want, and hopefully give it to them, or I’ll be here for a long time.”
The official didn’t count out the US offering a Russian spy in US custody as a potential offer, as Russia views Whelan as a spy.
“There is a willingness to pay even a very big price on the part of this president,” the official said. “We have made clear to the Russians, that we at least are open to talking about that which is at our disposal, that which we could actually deliver. It would be somebody in our custody.”
Biden spoke with Paul Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth Whelan, on Thursday afternoon, she told CNN, describing it as a “good call.” She said they spoke for about 10 minutes, and that she also spoke with Secretary of State Antony Blinken for about 15 minutes.
She praised the release of Griner, saying that she didn’t want the news of her brother being left behind to overshadow the good news about the WNBA player.
Elizabeth Whelan said she believes the Russians wanted to deny Biden a win by releasing both of the American wrongful detainees.
Elizabeth Whelan also told CNN that she does not believe her brother knows the extent of the efforts to free him, noting the family has to be careful what they tell him because they assume the Russian authorities are listening. She also noted that the foreign country is always going to paint news in their own favor, so Paul Whelan likely won’t know the full picture until he is freed.
National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby said Thursday that the US is “not back to square one” in its negotiations for Whelan’s release.
“We have been in active discussions with the Russians on Mr. Whelan’s case for a very, very long time. Certainly those conversations accelerated in recent months and I can assure you that we are going to stay at those active discussions going forward,” Kirby told CNN’s Kate Bolduan.
Asked if he thought he would face repercussions for speaking to CNN, Whelan said he didn’t think so.
“I’m not trying to shine a negative light on Russia per se, I’m just trying to tell it how it is. I’m trying to get a message through to my governments that I need help,” he said.
“If it is a risk, then it’s a risk I am willing to take because I think the message needs to get out,” he added. “And I’ve kind of sat quietly by for a long time, and at this point I’m frustrated that nothing’s being done, and I just don’t know what roadmap people are looking at to get me home,” Whelan said.
‘Who knows how I’ll come back or if I’ll come back’
Whelan expressed concern that he might not make it back to see his family in the United States, noting he has 12 years left in his prison sentence.
“My parents are older, my dog is 14 and a half. If I’m stuck here much longer, I’m in danger of never seeing any of them again,” he said.
Whelan is also worried that he himself might not make it out, telling CNN, “to be quite honest, in these conditions, who knows how I’ll come back or if I’ll come back.”
He described the penal colony as “better than most in Russia because it’s mostly foreigners held here, but the conditions are extremely bad.”
“We only have cold water. Everywhere is dirty. There really isn’t any maintenance. Things are extremely old, you know, 30-40-50 years old, and you know, what isn’t broken doesn’t work. We don’t have cleaning supplies. The medical care is substandard at best. And we’re really on our own to take care of ourselves,” he said.
Whelan also noted that the war in Ukraine has created intense mistrust among the other prisoners about Americans, and with the Russians “saying that I’m a general in the US military, that I’m a spy, a secret agent with the DIA, that’s left me in a very precarious situation, because people look at me in a very dangerous time and say, ‘well, you’re one of them.’”
Whelan said he tries to keep sane by reading “a lot of books” and writing letters. He said he likes to receive letters and cards, “sports scores and news articles and things like that,” because “that sort of thing coming in for our world makes me remember that our world still exists.”
CNN’s Kylie Atwood, Haley Britzky and Betsy Klein contributed to this report.