Paul Whelan’s brother, David Whelan, expressed support for WNBA star Brittney Griner and her family upon her release from Russian prison, but said he does “worry about what’s in Paul’s future.”
“It’s great news. Any time an American comes home, it’s wonderful news. I’m so glad for Brittney and Cherelle. It’s a wonderful day,” Whelan said during an interview on CNN Thursday morning following the news of Griner’s release.
However, the one-for-one prisoner swap means Paul Whelan, a former Marine who was arrested in Russia in 2018 on espionage charges, will for now remain there serving out a 16-year-prison sentence. The U.S. released arms trafficker Viktor Bout to Russia in exchange for Griner’s release.
“I think it’s become clear that the U.S. doesn’t have any concessions that the Russian government wants for Paul, so I’m not really sure what the future holds,” David Whelan said.
The White House informed Whelan’s family of Griner’s release on Wednesday, David Whelan said, a day before Biden made the announcement to the public. In his remarks, Biden said his administration has “not forgotten about Paul Whelan,” and that it “was not a choice of which American we’re going to bring home.”
“Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s,” Biden added. “And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”
David Whelan says “it’s not clear” what those reasons are, but it likely has to do with parity: “If they labeled Paul as a spy maybe they’re waiting until the U.S. government captures a spy and offer that as a trade,” he said.
In an interview on CNN Thursday, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said “it was pretty obvious early on” that Russia would treat Whelan “separate and distinct” from Griner.
“This was the deal that we could get, and now was the moment we could get it,” Kirby said. “And we just felt the choice was either get one American home, or get none, and it was important to at least get one home.”
Bout, he noted, “was never a bargaining chip for Mr. Whelan.”
In statement released earlier in the day, David Whelan acknowledged the struggle the Biden administration faced in the decision making, and said they “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.”
Griner’s wife, Cherelle, also spoke about Whelan Thursday, saying his family was “in our hearts,” and that both she and Griner would “remain committed” to helping him — and all Americans — return home.
For now, David Whelan is focused on ensuring his brother’s safety.
“But really it’s a matter of helping Paul to survive until — and if — the U.S. government is able to find a concession that the Russian government wants,” he said. “It’s not magic. It’s just a ton of work.”