David Whelan says it will be ‘really hard’ if brother Paul is left out of deal that frees Brittney Griner

In this Aug. 23, 2019, file photo, Paul Whelan, a former U.S. marine who was arrested for alleged spying in Moscow on Dec. 28, 2018, stands in a cage as he waits for a hearing in a court room in Moscow, Russia. The Moscow City Court on Monday June 15, 2020, convicted Paul Whelan on charges of espionage and sentenced him to 16 years in maximum security prison colony. Whelan has insisted on his innocence, saying he was set up. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko. File)

David Whelan, the brother of imprisoned former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, said he is cautiously optimistic about the renewed U.S. effort to free his sibling and Brittney Griner from detention in Russia but expressed concerns in an interview with The Hill that his brother could ultimately be left out of a deal that frees the WNBA star.  

“If Paul is left behind again it will be really hard, and yet we realize that Ms. Griner’s case is a different case and it’s a different person and it’s a different family, and the U.S. government has to deal with each of these cases one by one,” he said in an interview on Tuesday.  

His comments came less than a week after Secretary of State Antony Blinken publicly disclosed that the U.S. had made a “substantial proposal” to the Russians to free both Griner and Whelan, whom the U.S. government have classified as wrongfully detained.  

The U.S. has reportedly offered to swap convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout for both Americans. Blinken spoke with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, about the offer on Friday, but there has been no sign yet that the Russians are warm to it. The White House has said the offer was made to the Russians weeks ago.  

“We’ve made a serious proposal, made a serious offer, and we urge the Russians to take that offer because it was done with sincerity and we know we can back it up,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters during a briefing Tuesday. 

Whelan told The Hill that he believes it could be “many months” until there’s a resolution one way or another, noting that Griner’s ongoing trial would likely need to be resolved first.  

The WNBA star was arrested in Russia in February after officials said they discovered hashish oil in her luggage. Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges in July in an apparent gamble for leniency, and her trial is expected to conclude as soon as this week.  

“My assumption is … that it will be many months yet before we see any sort of outcome,” Whelan said in a phone interview. “I don’t know that the discussions will even start until after Ms. Griner’s case has been resolved.” 

The developments of the past week have breathed tepid optimism for the families seeking the return of their loved ones from Russia. Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who is also a citizen of Canada, the United Kingdom and Ireland, was arrested in Russia in December 2018 on charges of spying that he and his family vehemently deny. He was convicted and sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020.  

Whelan said Tuesday that he’s worried the Russians will ask for “parity” — meaning they would seek a trade for two imprisoned in the U.S., not one, which could ultimately hamper the negotiations.  

“It’s difficult. The initial positivity of knowing that the offer was out there — and it doesn’t at all diminish our faith in the U.S. government doing their best — but we realize that it’s not anywhere close to a certainty that Paul will be released from whatever offer was made in June,” Whelan said.  

After Blinken’s phone call with Lavrov, CNN reported that Russian officials had requested that Vadim Krasikov, a former colonel in the Russian intelligence service who was convicted of murder in Germany, be included in the proposed swap. The White House publicly rejected the idea as a “bad faith” and unserious counteroffer.  

Paul Whelan was not included in a deal brokered by the Biden administration that secured the release of another former Marine, Trevor Reed, in exchange for Konstantin Yaroshenko, who had been serving out a sentence for drug trafficking charges in the U.S. 

David Whelan said the Biden administration has not made any commitments that his brother would be part of any deal that frees Griner, but he said he doesn’t expect the government to do so.  

“We wouldn’t expect the U.S. government to promise that Paul would be involved in any outcome because then that would immediately impact whether Ms. Griner came home, and I couldn’t see the U.S. government saying, ‘Well, we’re going to walk away from both Americans’ if they had an opportunity to get one American out,” he said. 

Griner’s name recognition has brought more attention to the Biden administration’s efforts to free her and other Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad, and the administration is facing more public pressure to take action.

President Biden recently signed an executive order that authorized sanctions on those responsible for holding Americans and ordered stepped-up information sharing with families of detained Americans.  

Blinken’s decision to disclose publicly that an offer had been made to the Russians last week was apparently meant to both pressure Moscow to engage while making clear to the domestic audience that the U.S. had put a proposal on the table.  

For the time being, though, the administration is keeping the details of the discussions with the Russians private. 

“We’ll just be hopeful that the U.S. government sticks to its offer, that it tries to bring home both Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan and that it may require them to find additional concessions, although I’m not sure what those would be,” Whelan said.

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