The U.S. will continue fighting to bring American hostage Paul Whelan home from Russia, officials said Sunday, as they maintained the deal struck this week to free basketball star Brittney Griner was the best they could do at the time.
Asked what he’d say to Whelan, the former Marine still imprisoned in Russia, U.S special envoy for hostage affairs Roger Carstens said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union”: “It was either one or none … There was no opportunity to bring you home at this time. But Paul, we’re coming for you.”
Even as many celebrated the release of Griner, who had been held for 10 months in Russia for charges related to marijuana possession, the Biden administration faced criticism about the prisoner swap for Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer. There was also criticism that Whelan, who has been detained longer than Griner, was not part of the deal, as hoped.
Russia treats Whelan’s case differently because he was charged with espionage in Russia, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Sunday on “Fox News Sunday.”
Kirby called those charges a “sham,” but said there was “just no way” to get him home.
The administration has said both Griner and Whelan were wrongfully detained.
Carstens shared additional details about Griner’s flight home from Russia: The professional basketball player spent about two-thirds of the 18-hour flight talking, he said. Griner spoke “at length” about her ordeal, Carstens said, though he declined to say more about what she told him.
“I was left with the impression that this is an intelligent, passionate, compassionate, humble, interesting person, a patriotic person, but above all — authentic,” Carstens said. “I hate the fact that I had to meet her in this manner. But I actually felt blessed having had a chance to get to know her.”
Carstens also spoke to Whelan on Friday, he said. The envoy said the administration needs “to keep our cards close to our chest” regarding options to bring Whelan home, but confirmed “there are always cards.”
Responding to criticism about setting Bout free, Kirby noted that Bout was already set to be released from prison in 2029.
Bout, who was arrested in 2008, has been nicknamed the “Merchant of Death” for his role in supplying weapons to warring factions, including in the first and second Liberian civil wars, which killed 250,000 people.
“If Mr. Bout decides to go back to his previous line of work, then we’re going to do what we need to do to hold him accountable and to protect our interests,” Kirby said on ABC’s “This Week.”
If members of Congress move to investigate the Biden administration’s handling of the swap, the administration will cooperate and “be as forthcoming as we absolutely can be,” Kirby said.
Griner, a WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist, was imprisoned in Russia — most recently in a penal colony — after being arrested at a Moscow airport in February. In court, she acknowledged having vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage when she arrived in the country, but she maintains that she had no criminal intent and that she had accidentally packed the cartridges.
Whelan, a corporate security executive, was detained in December 2018 on espionage charges and sentenced to 16 years in a Russian prison in June 2020.