Detainee fates hang over Biden meeting with Putin

Detainee fates hang over Biden meeting with Putin
© Getty Images

The families of two Americans and former Marines detained in Russia hope that the upcoming summit between President BidenJoe BidenBriahna Joy Gray: White House thinks extending student loan pause is a 'bad look' Biden to meet with 11 Democratic lawmakers on DACA: report Former New York state Senate candidate charged in riot MORE and Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinDemocrats find a tax Republicans can support Biden officials pledge to confront cybersecurity challenges head-on Biden says Russia spreading misinformation ahead of 2022 elections MORE will be a step forward toward bringing their loved ones home.

Trevor Reed, 29, and Paul Whelan, 51, have each been jailed in Russia for a combined five and a half years, detentions that their families and U.S. officials maintain are unjust.

Reed’s parents, Joey and Paula Reed, told The Hill in an interview that they hoped Biden would raise their son’s detention with Putin. They expressed support for a prisoner swap that could bring their son home — something Putin himself has suggested he may be open to.

ADVERTISEMENT

“We think this is our best chance right now, while everything is going on, to make this occur and get Trevor home,” said Paula Reed. “We are cautiously optimistic.”

Reed, who served as a presidential guard at Camp David during the Obama administration, was detained in 2019 on charges of assaulting a police officer during a drunken episode and sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison last July. His family says that his arrest was politically motivated and suspect the Russians jailed him as a pawn in hopes of extracting something from the United States. Reed says he does not remember the incident.

The Reeds last spoke to their son on May 20 and believe he has been in isolation since May 24 after being diagnosed with COVID-19.

“He’s been there almost two years and he’s not going to get that time back,” Paula Reed said.

Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence at a Russian labor camp after being accused and convicted of spying, a charge that he and his family vehemently deny. Whelan, who is also a Canadian, British and Irish citizen, was detained in Russia in December 2018. He says that he was set up.

Whelan has a respiratory ailment as well as a stress injury on his elbow from working in a factory making clothes, his brother David Whelan told The Hill in an interview Monday.

ADVERTISEMENT

The detentions are among a host of thorny and emotional issues hanging over Biden’s first meeting with the Russian president since taking office in January.

The U.S. government has also raised alarm about the case of U.S. investor Michael Calvey, who is fighting criminal embezzlement charges in Russia related to a commercial dispute. Calvey was released from house arrest last year.

It’s unclear whether Biden will directly raise the detained Americans during his meeting with Putin in Geneva on Wednesday. U.S. officials say that Biden plans to confront Putin on a myriad of issues, including cyberattacks, human rights and election interference.

There will be meetings between other high-level U.S. and Russian officials where the detentions may be more likely to come up.

David Whelan said that his family doesn’t “have any expectation that Paul would be on the agenda of such an important meeting” but said the summit could pave the way for progress in his brother’s case.

“We retain the same hope that just having the summit is a good step forward, regardless of whatever the outcomes of the summit are for Paul,” he said. “Our hope is that there will be outcomes in the future, as much as anything.”

During an interview with NBC News ahead of the summit, Putin suggested he would be willing to free Whelan and Reed for Russians detained by the U.S. while dismissing Reed as a “drunk” and a “troublemaker.”

Putin named Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who has been sentenced to 20 years in prison on drug conspiracy charges. Another individual whose release Russia may seek is convicted arms trafficker Viktor Bout, who is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence.

“There is a possibility that this could move forward and no doubt that President Biden will raise these two peoples’ fates,” said Angela Stent, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian & East European Studies. “I think it’ll only be resolved if a tradeoff is made that is acceptable to the Russians.”

Senior Biden administration officials have been more vocal than those in the Trump administration in drawing public attention to the detentions of Reed and Whalen, both of whom were arrested in Russia under former President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer New York state Senate candidate charged in riot Trump called acting attorney general almost daily to push election voter fraud claim: report GOP senator clashes with radio caller who wants identity of cop who shot Babbitt MORE.

Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenBlinken calls US-India relationship 'vital' during official visit US sanctioning Syrian officials, groups over human rights abuses Chinese officials meeting with Taliban ahead of US withdrawal MORE raised their cases in communications with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, which the State Department then explicitly acknowledged in readouts.

Early on in his term as secretary of state, Blinken also held a video call with families of Americans wrongfully detained in other countries that lasted nearly two hours.

“It just lifted our hearts,” said Joey Reed, Trevor Reed’s father, recalling the virtual meeting. “You could see people crying.”

The families have also been complimentary of the work of U.S. ambassador to Russia John Sullivan and Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens, who served in the Trump administration but were asked to stay on.

Still, efforts to secure the release of the men have been unfruitful and tensions between the U.S. and Russia have only risen over the past year.

After taking office, Biden imposed fresh sanctions on Moscow over the Kremlin’s poisoning and jailing of Alexei Navalny and the unprecedented SolarWinds cyberattack targeting U.S. government institutions and businesses.

“I think the ideal message would be that arbitrary detentions of American citizens by any nation are the sort of action that the American government won’t tolerate,” David Whelan said when asked what message he would like Biden to send about his brother. “Not only are arbitrary detentions not acceptable, but that they consider Paul’s case to be an arbitrary detention.”