Former National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said the Russians were committed to freeing U.S. Marine Paul Whelan from prison before President Joe Biden defeated former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.
O’Brien said Russian National Security Adviser Nikolai Patrushev reneged on a deal to release Whelan and Trevor Reed from prison just after it was clear Biden would become president.
“Once we lost the election, the Russians lost all interest” in negotiating Whelan’s release with the Trump administration, O’Brien told the Hill.
O’Brien said he and Patrushev met about the multi-prisoner swap in Geneva of October 2020.
“Without getting into the details, there were further summit meetings the Russians wanted to have that would have required improvement in relations,” O’Brien said. “And my position was, if you want to improve relations with us, you cannot keep Whelan and Reed.”
Last week, Biden announced a prisoner swap exchanging Russian prisoner and former WNBA star Brittney Griner for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States. Griner was imprisoned in Russia on charges of possessing cannabis.
Critics of the swap say Whelan should have been released along with Griner in exchange for the arms dealer, dubbed the “merchant of death.” The swap left Whelan imprisoned in Russia.
“I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four-year anniversary of my arrest is coming up. I was arrested for a crime that never occurred,” Whelan reportedly told CNN. “I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here.”
“They’ve put me at a level higher than what they did with Trevor (Reed) and Brittney,” he said, referring to the Russian government.
Reed was released from imprisonment in the spring. Imprisoned in Russia since 2019, the former Marine was sentenced to nine years in prison in July 2020 for endangering the “life and health” of Russian police. Reed was traded for Russian drug smuggler Konstantin Yaroshenko.
Biden defended the Griner/Bout swap as the best he could negotiate. “Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s,” he said.
“Brittney is an incomparable athlete,” Biden added. “She represents the best about America — just across the board, everything about her.”