The Biden administration said it made the “very painful decision” to bring Brittney Griner home Thursday, one that required former U.S. marine Paul Whelan to stay behind in Russian prison, Politico reported.
Russian authorities arrested Whelan for alleged espionage in December 2018. He was subsequently convicted and sentenced to 16 years in prison in June 2020. Negotiations for Whelan’s release ramped up following Griner’s arrest and detention earlier in 2022, with Washington pushing for a two-for-one deal with Russia: Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner for the “Merchant of Death” arms dealer Viktor Bout, Politico reported.
Moscow previously said it would only consider releasing both Griner and Whelan if the U.S. included Vadim Krasikov, an ex-KGB colonel convicted of murdering a Georgian citizen in 2019, in the trade, according to Politico. After multinational negotiations, Russia informed U.S. officials the country would only trade Griner for Bout.
“Due to the nature of the sham espionage charges Russia levied against Paul [Whelan], the Russians have continued to treat his situation differently from Brittney’s and rejected each and every one of our proposals for his release. It was a choice between bringing home one particular American, Brittney Griner, or bringing home none,” a senior Biden official said, according to Politico.
While the Biden administration would not comment on potential security threats following the release of Bout, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said it was not a decision the administration made “lightly,” according to Politico.
Former President Donald Trump slammed the deal on Truth Social, calling it an “embarrassment” and “unpatriotic.” Republican Idaho Sen. Jim Risch of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was also critical of the swap, saying, “It must be clear that Paul Whelan should have been part of this deal; he is a Marine who fought for our country, and he is a hero,” Politico reported. (RELATED: Former US Marine Freed From Russian Detention Center In Prisoner Swap)
KJP: “It was either bringing Brittney [Griner] home, or no one at all.” pic.twitter.com/1DbffvcQ6t
— Townhall.com (@townhallcom) December 8, 2022
Whelan told CNN he isn’t sure if he’ll make it out of the penal colony in time to see his family. “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 explained via phone call Thursday, acknowledging that 12 years still remain in his sentence.
“To be quite honest, in these conditions, who knows how I’ll come back or if I’ll come back,” Whelan added.
“We have been in active discussions with the Russians on Mr. Whelan’s case for a very, very long time,” National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby told CNN. “Certainly those conversations accelerated in recent months and I can assure you that we are going to stay at those active discussions going forward.”
Negotiations for Whelan’s release are “not back to square one,” Kirby continued.
The former Marine said his bags are packed and he is ready to go home. “I was arrested for a crime that never occurred. I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here,” he said, according to CNN.