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Michigan man may be swapped in Russian prisoner exchange

Paul Whelan, courtesy of David Whelan
Paul Whelan, courtesy of David Whelan

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the Biden Administration has made a “substantial proposal” to secure the release of two Americans held by Russia, WNBA star Brittney Griner and Michigan native Paul Whelan.

Griner is currently on trial in Russia for drug-related charges, and a Russian court sentenced Whelan to 16 years in prison for espionage.

U.S. officials say there is no evidence Whelan was spying and maintain Russia has wrongfully detained both he and Griner.

Multiple media outlets report the Biden Administration is offering to swap Griner and Whelan for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed the “Merchant of Death,” who was convicted of terrorism and has been imprisoned in the U.S. for more than a decade.

Moscow has long-sought Bout’s release, but U.S. officials typically push back against prisoner exchanges with other nations, charging that such swaps encourage foreign rivals to take Americans abroad hostage.

Whelan’s twin brother, David Whelan, says while the U.S. now offering a deal to free Americans provides hope, it does little more than that.

“I’m not sure that anything has really changed, other than that we know for sure at least one offer has been made by the U.S. government to the Russian government.”

He says there could be other similar cases that aren’t being publicized, and wonders why this one is.

“I can’t recall the last time they discussed an offer being made before the offer had been accepted. I can only think that the U.S. government may be adopting a similar tactic as it did with its intelligence around the Russian build up for the Ukraine war, essentially putting on record what the U.S. government has done and forcing the Russian government to respond.”

What’s also been different recently, it seems, is that there’s been pressure ratcheted-up on the Biden Administration, in particular, from a variety of sources.

Trevor Reed, who the Russians released from prison earlier this year, has said that he thought more should be done on Whelan and Griner’s cases.

President Biden had spoken with Griner’s family, but according to Whelan’s sister, their family had not heard directly from him despite numerous attempts. Now, the Whelan family has heard publicly from the president, but Griner’s case is still underway in Moscow.

Officials there have said they wouldn’t make any determination one way or the other as to her status, or what they would do with her until she’s actually been convicted in a Russian court.

David Whelan says it could be months before any action is actually taken. “The Russian legal system works in mysterious ways. And I know that there are very few things that the U.S. government has that can be conceded to the Russian government in exchange for Paul’s release. If the substantial offer contains any or all of those things, then I think this may be a one shot at getting Paul out.”

Quinn Klinefelter is a host and Senior News Editor for 101.9 WDET, anchoring midday newscasts and preparing reports for WDET, NPR and the BBC.