What Happens to Paul Whelan Now?

Photo: Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images

WNBA star Brittney Griner officially arrived in San Antonio, Texas, early Friday morning, landing on American soil for the first time since being detained by Russia in February and subsequently sentenced to a nine-year prison term. The two-time Olympian’s release was facilitated by a prisoner exchange, the United States receiving Griner in return for notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. But Paul Whelan, an American who has been imprisoned in Russia for years, was not part of the deal, prompting questions about what can be done to get him home.

The Associated Press reported Friday that Russian president Vladimir Putin has expressed an openness to more prisoner swaps between his country and the United States following Griner’s release.

“Everything is possible,” Putin said when asked about the likelihood of future exchanges following an event in Kyrgyzstan.

Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, was detained at a Moscow hotel in 2018. He’s been accused of espionage by Russian officials, something that Whelan and the U.S. federal government have consistently denied. In 2020, Whelan was sentenced to 16 years in prison, a term he has been serving since.

In an interview with CNN, Whelan said he was “greatly disappointed” that more hasn’t been done to get him out of Russia.

“I was arrested for a crime that never occurred,” he said to the network. “I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here.”

In his remarks on Griner’s release, President Joe Biden said it “was not a choice of which American to bring home” and that Russia is treating Whelan’s case differently than that of Griner’s. The administration had initially pursued a trade of Bout for both Griner and Whelan.

“While we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up,” he said.

John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, echoed Biden’s words in an interview with PBS, saying that Russia wouldn’t accept both Americans for Bout and that a one-for-one trade for Griner was the sole option.

“So this was the deal we could get. This was the moment that we could get it. And the choice was either we get one American home or we get none. And we felt we had a moral obligation to do what we could to get Brittney Griner back home to her family and her teammates, where she belongs,” he said. “And we’re going to continue that work to get Mr. Whelan home.”

What Happens to Paul Whelan Now?