This was not the news that the family of Paul Whelan, including Vineyard artist Elizabeth Whelan, had hoped for. The U.S. has made a one-for-one swap of prisoners with Russia, trading arms dealer Victor Bout for WNBA star Brittney Griner.
The U.S. had offered a two-for-one exchange that included Whelan and Griner, but ultimately took what it could get to bring Griner, who had been imprisoned for allegedly bringing illegal drugs into Russia, home.
Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, is being held on what his family says are trumped-up espionage charges.
Elizabeth Whelan told The Times that the family is happy for Griner and her family, but remains concerned about Paul. “It wasn’t exactly what we hoped for. It’s so difficult,” she said. “We’re glad Brittney is free. She was getting started on what was going to be an ordeal in a prison camp. It’s a relief that she is being freed.”
The Whelan family had been hopeful because of their interactions with the Biden administration over the past year. “You tend to think if you get administration on your side and everyone is rallying for a loved one, it’s going to lead to a trade,” she said. “The problem is the other side has a vote in this, and Russia is not known for following the playbook.”
Elizabeth said by not releasing Paul, Russia is attempting to create chaos. “Rather than negotiate in good faith, this is how they choose to play it out,” she said. “My brother is a token in all that.”
“We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan, who has been wrongly detained in Russia for years,” President Joe Biden said during a briefing Dec. 8 on the prisoner swap. “This 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. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we have not given up. We will never give up.”
He noted that his administration remains in touch with the Whelan family.
Elizabeth Whelan did praise the Biden administration for giving the family advance warning that Griner would be released, but Paul Whelan would not. They even sent a member of the State Department to the Island to tell her in person.
“When Trevor Reed was released and Paul was left behind last time, we only got a half-hour warning. This time, the one thing I asked is, Can we all please learn from this, and can you please let us know in advance?” Elizabeth said.
On Monday, Dec. 12, Elizabeth had a virtual meeting with the White House, and was told that Paul “remains as high a priority as the president has,” according to an email sent to reporters by David Whelan.
According to a transcript of Monday’s White House press briefing, the White House is exploring other options to bring Paul Whelan home from Russia. National Security advisor Jake Sullivan confirmed the meeting with Elizabeth Whelan.
“You’ll understand that I can’t get into the specifics of the kinds of things that we are contemplating to try to ensure that we get Paul home as soon as we can. I will just say that the conversations with Paul Whelan’s family have been substantive,” Sullivan said, according to the transcript. “They have had a number of very good questions, and also a number of suggestions that they’ve put forward. And we have been working to figure out what it is going to take to ultimately secure his freedom, and how we can go about getting that and being able to sit down with the Russians and work out a deal.”
Asked what the U.S. has to offer without a Russian prisoner in custody, Sullivan said he couldn’t be specific, but said that changing the country’s policy on the Ukraine invasion is not an option.
“We believe that there are plays that we can continue to try to run, things that we have had in motion that we are still working on, that could potentially lead to a positive result here. Again, because of the sensitivity of these issues, I don’t want to go into detail on them, but we are going to keep working at this,” he said. “The big challenge we had over the course of the past several months is that what Russia was asking for to secure Paul Whelan’s release was not something that we had to be able to give. That is a problem we are trying to solve. We have various ways that we are working through solutions, and we will be endeavoring on a daily basis, from the President on down, to finally develop a formula that works.”
In another conversation with The Times on Tuesday, Elizabeth Whelan said the outpouring has been overwhelming. The GoFundMe set up for Paul has gotten a lot of attention, and the messages there have been helpful for the Whelan family. Elizabeth said she received a Christmas card on Tuesday at her Vineyard home offering support for Paul’s release.
“It’s been pretty extraordinary. A lot of media attention, which is great that as many people as possible know about this,” she said, noting that she’s been on everything from MSNBC to NewsMax.
The one disappointing aspect of the renewed attention is the political vitriol that it’s triggered.
“On one of the TV shows I appeared on, we talked about all of this divisiveness,” she said. “I said, ‘If people have a better idea, members of Congress should go directly to the National Security Council.’”
Elizabeth said some people have gotten in touch with ideas, and without getting into specifics, she relayed those in her meeting with White House officials.
She wanted the public to know this about the political discourse that’s taking place on social media and in places like The Times comment section: “It’s awful. I don’t know the word to describe it. It’s overwhelmingly bad. To see your brother become someone to be rallied around and the rallying is only because he’s being used as a political football — annoying, overwhelming, and depressing. Paul is a real person, and his family members are real people as well,” she said.
Some commenters are passing judgment on Paul’s past, including his discharge from the Marines for bad conduct — as if that’s a reason for him to be imprisoned in Russia. “At that point who he is as a person is completely lost,” she said. “Now he is a political football being pushed back and forth. Russia is doing these things on purpose. There was no way they were going to give the president the win of bringing home two people at once for [Bout]. It’s very difficult to see.”
Whelan provided some insight into how Paul was able to do an interview with CNN. After learning from the White House that he wouldn’t be released, he called a reporter who has been corresponding with him in prison, and prison officials allowed the call to go through. Paul has spoken to the media in the past, including one time that landed him in solitary confinement, Elizabeth said.
Paul has spoken with his parents since the news broke. “He was very calm and collected,” Elizabeth said. “He’s concerned, but keeping a level head. I can’t imagine what kind of courage that takes.”
Elizabeth said U.S. Rep. Bill Keating has already phoned her as well. “He is going to bat for Paul bigtime. There’s no doubt,” she said. “If everyone wasn’t already fired up, they are now.”
Still, she wanted to make sure that the public understands her family is happy for Griner. “Any American coming home is a cause for celebration,” she said.
In an email to reporters, David Whelan, Paul and Elizabeth’s brother, also praised the release of Griner.
“I am so glad that Brittney Griner is on her way home,” David Whelan wrote in an email to reporters. “As the family member of a Russian hostage, I can literally only imagine the joy she will have, being reunited with her loved ones, and in time for the holidays. There is no greater success than for a wrongful detainee to be freed and for them to go home. The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.’
David Whelan made it clear that the family does not begrudge Griner her freedom. “As I have often remarked, Brittney’s and Paul’s cases were never really intertwined,” he wrote. “It has always been a strong possibility that one might be freed without the other.”
So as Whelan’s fourth anniversary of imprisonment nears, his parents and family members will spend another holiday season apart.
“Despite the possibility that there might be an exchange without Paul, our family is still devastated,” he wrote. “I can’t even fathom how Paul will feel when he learns. Paul has worked so hard to survive nearly four years of this injustice. His hopes had soared with the knowledge that the U.S. government was taking concrete steps for once toward his release. He’d been worrying about where he’d live when he got back to the U.S.”
Whelan wrote that it’s difficult to keep hope. “It’s clear that the U.S. government has no concessions that the Russian government will take for Paul Whelan,” he wrote. “And so Paul will remain a prisoner until that changes.”
Paul’s parents are aging — they will be 85 and 83 — and the family worries that he won’t survive 12 more years in a labor colony. “He has tried to stay healthy, but one wonders how long that determination to keep going can endure,” David Whelan wrote.